The State of Liberalism

by John Yoo

Read President Obama’s State of the Union version 6.0, and one theme comes into sharp relief: the bankruptcy of liberalism. President Obama’s speech asked for this and that, ranging from anti-obesity programs to gun control to a minimum wage for government contractors. It made open pleas for the support of different interest groups, including recent immigrants and women. It claimed achievements for which the White House was not responsible, such as the addition of millions of new jobs in the recovery and America’s growing energy independence.

Obama’s State of the Union reads like a shopping list while those of earlier presidents of both parties, such as Kennedy and Johnson, or Reagan or Bush, did not. Why?  Because Obama’s shopping list has no true guiding principles, no broader political understanding of our point in American history, no plan for guiding the nation from 2008 to 2016 in the most prosperous and secure way possible. Obama retains a liberal’s faith in government intervention in the markets and civil society, but to no purpose. Without that broader understanding of politics, Obama’s agenda reduces to distributing more benefits to more groups. He lacks what lawyers often describe as a limiting principle — no real line between what government should do and what it should not do. Without a coherent ideology, Obama can only define progress as extracting more resources from an unwilling civil society and redistributing it to ever more groups and organized interests who he hopes will add to his political coalition.

As we saw at the end of the Johnson and Carter administrations, this approach will collapse upon itself. There will never be enough resources to satisfy the insatiable appetites of an ever-growing list of groups and interests. Meanwhile, the American people will soon relearn that they do not need government to focus on redistributing their income and assets. They can do that themselves through charities, private and religious institutions, and good works. They will realize that the best way for the government to help the nation is to focus on protecting the nation’s security from foreign threats and to counteract its own distorting interference into civil society. As Arthur Herman and I argued yesterday, Obama would have done the nation a better turn by rejecting the temptation to stoke class conflict and instead focus on the rising authoritarian threat abroad and resisting his own government’s stifling of private enterprise at home.  

— John Yoo is Emanuel S. Heller Professor of Law at the University of California at Berkeley.