President Obama gives his big acceptance address tonight at the Democratic convention in Charlotte, and he is no longer, as George Will observes this morning in a column you should read in full before watching the president speak, “America’s Rorschach test,” upon whom voters can project their own hopes.
To govern, however, is to choose, and now his choices have clarified him. He is a conviction politician determined to complete the progressive project of emancipating government from the Founders’ constraining premises, a project Woodrow Wilson embarked on 100 Novembers ago.
Will cites a new study, I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism, by Charles R. Kesler of Claremont McKenna College. Obama has practiced “prudent reticence” about his goals for the transformation of the United States, but Kesler’s study, according to Will, explains them.
Will writes that President Obama may be seen as the heir to Wilson and two other progressives, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, all three of whom enlarged government, taking it places that the Founders never intended.
“Government is a relation of give and take.” The “rulers” — FDR’s word — take power from the people, who in turn are given “certain rights.”
This, says Kesler, is “the First Law of Big Government: the more power we give the government, the more rights it will give us.” It also is the ultimate American radicalism, striking at the roots of the American regime, the doctrine of natural rights. Remember this when next — perhaps tonight — Obama discourses on the radicalism of Paul Ryan.
The progressive vision was exemplified in the words of the poet Archibald MacLeish, appointed librarian of Congress by Lyndon Johnson, who said that the United States “the abundant means” to create “whatever world we have the courage to desire” and the ability to “take this country down” and “build it again as we please,” to “take our cities apart and put them together,” to lead our “rivers where we please to lead them.”
Will seems to believe that the citizenry is onto the progressive dream and poised to reject it:
In 2012, Americans want from government not such flights of fancy but sobriety; not ecstatic evocations of dreamlike tomorrows but a tolerably functioning today; not fantasies about a world without scarcities and therefore without choices among our desires and appetites but a mature understanding of the limits to government’s proper scope and actual competence.
Tonight’s speech is Obama’s last chance to take a first step toward accommodation with a country increasingly concerned about his unmasked determination to “transform” what the Founders considered “fundamentals.”
I wish I were as confident as Will is that a sufficient number of citizens wish to uphold our founding principles of a government that protects our rights but doesn’t intrude into our private lives.