Obama’s Second Inaugural

I didn’t watch the Second Inaugural, but I found it was much talked about.  The consensus was that BHO reclaimed from the Tea Party the mantle of the Founding, on behalf of progressives, and given the most ideologically or philosophically explicit speech of his career.  I figured he had restated Wilsonian doctrine.

But while Obama undoubtedly thought he was doing all this, his philosophy was far more vague and general than what Wilson or the Roosevelts articulated, or what Reagan or Thatcher or Paul Ryan articulate.  I myself could find only a little to disagree with in the ideological section.

“What binds this nation together is an idea, ‘we hold these truths, etc.’  Truths self-evident, not self-executing; execution depends on connecting idea with the realities of our time.”  Well, who could argue with that?  The moral principles of the Declaration are unchanging, how best to instantiate them is contingent on circumstances.  So far, so good.  I am willing to accommodate changing circumstances in to this extent- I would be a fool not to.  “[P]reserving our individual freedoms ultimately means collective action.”  Ignoring the intended and unjustified implications, who would disagree with that statement?

A truly intellectually ambitious inaugural address would have argued either that Obama’s policies have been consistent with the Constitution and the founding principles, or that this document and these principles themselves are obsolete.  It would engage the actual opposition arguments.  It would defend the Obama record, including ObamaCare, in light of these principles and of the Constitution.


Now, many of Obama’s opponents believe that elements of his program violate the principles of the Declaration, and the Constitution.  Applications of principles will change with time. 

The Constitution is not a statement of principles, but a legal document, similar to an organization’s charter, concrete enough to have defined meaning but general enough not to tell the organization what, specifically, it must do throughout its existence.  The French Constitution, on the other hand, tries to cover everything, going into bureaucratic minutia combined with airy principles that can be interpreted however one wants.   It is both too general and too specific.  For instances of the first fault, consider:

France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion. It shall respect all beliefs. It shall be organised on a decentralised basis.  Statutes shall promote equal access by women and men to elective offices and posts as well as to position of professional and social responsibility….The principle of the Republic shall be: government of the people, by the people and for the people….Political parties and groups…shall respect the principles of national sovereignty and democracy….Statutes shall guarantee the expression of diverse opinions…The President of the Republic shall ensure due respect for the Constitution.

Some people believe the U.S. Constitution is such a document as this, so that because it cannot possibly tell government what to do in every situation, we can only derive from it some abstract purpose such as freedom or human dignity or self-government, and then decide what we want those things to mean.

The Federalists, such as Hamilton and Justice Marshall, believed that government needed flexibility to operate, and that such flexibility was consistent with the Constitution and its restraints.**  Jefferson’s Republicans were famously much more restrictive in their ideas of what it meant to follow the Constitution.  They opposed the Bank of the United States, because in necessary and proper, necessary means necessary.  They treated the Louisiana Purchase as a one-time violation, justified by the tremendous benefits it brings, rather than as falling under the treaty power. 

But supporters of today’s big government really are closer to the Jeffersonians in their understanding of the Constitution: it doesn’t really provide any kind of adaptability to circumstances.  Therefore, they believe, we ought to not take it very seriously, and popular ratification of all the tremendous benefits that come from routine violations of the letter of the Constitution are a much more important source of legitimacy than that ancient document.

* Any anarchocapitalists out there?

** “Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the constitution, are constitutional,” Chief Justice Marshall, McCulloch vs. Maryland; “If the end be clearly comprehended within any of the specified powers, and if the measure have an obvious relation to that end, and is not forbidden by any particular provision of the Constitution, it may safely be deemed to come within the compass of the national authority.” – Hamilton


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