More than any Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt, Barack Obama in his writings and speeches has worked out an impressive interpretation of American history that culminates in modern liberalism. It also culminates, not incidentally, in him. As a writer, Obama’s strength is telling tales, and his story of America mixes together social, intellectual, and political history. It begins and keeps contending with the Founding – with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He tries to tell a new story about the country that acknowledges, and then contextualizes, traditional views in ways that are meant to be reassuring but that point to very untraditional conclusions.
In The Audacity of Hope, his second book, in a chapter titled “Values,” he quotes the Declaration’s famous sentence on self-evident truths and then comments:
Those simple words are our starting point as Americans; they describe not only the foundations of our government but the substance of our common creed. Not every American may be able to recite them; few, if asked, could trace the genesis of the Declaration of Independence to its roots in eighteenth-century liberal and republican thought. But the essential idea behind the Declaration — that we are born into this world free, all of us; that each of us arrives with a bundle of rights that can’t be taken away by any person or any state without just cause; that through our own agency we can, and must, make of our lives what we will — is one that every American understands.
It sounds practically Lincolnian, until one notices that the rights in this “bundle” are not said to be natural, exactly, nor true, and certainly not self-evident; and he seems to go out of his way not to admit that the Declaration proclaims that all men are created equal as well as free. These rights are an outgrowth of 18th-century political thought, he emphasizes, too recondite for most Americans to explain or remember.