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Opinion

Opinion

Obama spurs Wilson comparison

September 6, 2012

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— Four years ago, Barack Obama was America’s Rorschach test upon whom voters could project their disparate yearnings. 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.

As such, Obama has earned what he now receives, the tribute of a serious intellectual exegesis by a distinguished political philosopher. In “I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism,” Charles Kesler of Claremont McKenna College rightly says Obama is “playing a long, high-stakes game.” Concerning the stakes, Obama practices prudent reticence, not specifying America’s displeasing features that are fundamental. Shortly before the 2008 election, he said only: “We are five days away from fundamentally transforming” America. Tonight, consider Obama’s acceptance speech in the context that Kesler gives it in the American political tradition.      

Progress, as progressives understand it, means advancing away from, up from, something. But from what?

From the Constitution’s constricting anachronisms. In 1912, Wilson said, “The history of liberty is the history of the limitation of governmental power.” But as Kesler notes, Wilson never said the future of liberty consisted of such limitation.

Instead, he said, “every means ... by which society may be perfected through the instrumentality of government” should be used so that “individual rights can be fitly adjusted and harmonized with public duties.” Rights “adjusted and harmonized” by government necessarily are defined and apportioned by it. Wilson, the first transformative progressive, called this the “New Freedom.” The old kind was the Founders’ kind — government existing to “secure” natural rights (see the Declaration) that pre-exist government. Wilson thought this had become an impediment to progress. The pedigree of Obama’s thought runs straight to Wilson.

And through the second transformative progressive, Franklin Roosevelt, who counseled against the Founders’ sober practicality and fear of government power: “We are beginning to wipe out the line that divides the practical from the ideal” and are making government “an instrument of unimagined power” for social improvement. The only thing we have to fear is fear of a government of unimagined power:

“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.

As Kesler says, the logic of progressivism is: “Since our rights are dependent on government, why shouldn’t we be?” This is the real meaning of Obama’s most characteristic rhetorical trope, his incessant warning that Americans should be terrified of being “on your own.”

Obama, the fourth transformative progressive, had a chief of staff who said “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” More than a century before that, a man who would become the first such progressive said a crisis is a terrible thing not to create. Crises, said Wilson, are periods of “unusual opportunity” for gaining “a controlling and guiding influence.” So, he said, leaders should maintain a crisis atmosphere “at all times.”

Campaigning in 1964, Lyndon Johnson, the third consequential progressive, exclaimed through a bull horn: “I just want to tell you this — we’re in favor of a lot of things and we’re against mighty few.” He learned this progressive vernacular from his patron, FDR, who envisioned “an unlimited civilization capable of infinite progress.”

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.”

— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.    

Comments

75x55 1 year, 7 months ago

Local boys all whistling past the graveyard....

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Mike Ford 1 year, 7 months ago

wow wingers know who woodrow wilson is??? really??? do they also remember being head in the sand isolationists and the League of Nations?

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tange 1 year, 7 months ago

The moment I saw Will spurring a century-old President, I knew that dog and dead pony show wasn't going anywhere.

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beatrice 1 year, 7 months ago

In 1965, Robby the Robot would swing his arms and yell "Danger! Danger!" and would stir people up with his fear mongering. Using Will's logic, I guess this must mean Mitt Romney really is a robot, right?

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75x55 1 year, 7 months ago

Jeez - welcome to party, George. Where have ya been all this time?

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Carol Bowen 1 year, 7 months ago

I could be imagining things, but it looks to me like George Will was impressed by Clinton's speech. It certainly upgraded his vocabulary and thought. Obama as a movement in constitutional history. Interesting.

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voevoda 1 year, 7 months ago

George Will really needed a logic check on this essay before publishing it. His goal is to depict President Obama as someone dedicated to abridging individual freedom and promoting domineering government. But instead of saying anything concrete about Obama, he talks about what he sees as the failings of Presidents Wilson, F. D. Roosevelt, and L. Johnson. Problem 1: Will has no basis for attributing to Obama the views expressed by Wilson, Roosevelt, or Johnson. If Obama actually held these positions, then Will would have been able to document such views in his own words. Problem 2: Wilson, Roosevelt, and Johnson are presidents whose records have stood the test of history. Whatever criticisms they endured in their own time (some justified, in my opinion), their vision of the US and what it could and should be did a great deal to make our country better. We should hope that Obama will be remembered in their company!

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Steven Gaudreau 1 year, 7 months ago

Anyone know when our president is scheduled to dance on the Ellen Degeneres Show this campaign? I think he got more votes from women with that move the Gore got by giving Tipper some tongue on stage. If Obama's handlers were worth anything, he would be scheduled to appear on Dancing With The Stars and the First Lady would be on Real Housewives of DC. Those two things alone would capture 98% of the votes.

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Flap Doodle 1 year, 7 months ago

Saw the headline & thought this was about the volleyball in that Tom Hanks movie.

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Phoghorn 1 year, 7 months ago

Obama washed ashore on a Pacific Island only to befriend Tom Hanks? How could I have missed this story...

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SageonPage 1 year, 7 months ago

George is amazing! He nails the sneaky progressive again! Thank God for he and Glenn Beck and Rush who keep tabs on the sneaky left who are desperate. I like the fact when busted by the American public the Dems had to replace a few planks Americans demand to be in our political discourse, such as God and Jerusalem as Israel's capital! Sneaky dems caught again, but at least they had the common sense to put the wording back in or seal their defeat.

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fiddleback 1 year, 7 months ago

And just what exactly makes Obama the next transformative progressive? Obamacare? That thing implemented by Romney and proposed 23 years ago by the Heritage Foundation?

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204369404577211161144786448.html

So, another example of how much the discourse has swung to the right that a center-right pol like Obama, (who probably won't achieve much of anything, let alone something "transformative" with a second term,) is portrayed as the Big Government boogie man, and all just so to top bracket can elect their preferred plutocrat and not pay 3% more in taxes.

I also enjoyed this part revealing Will's myopic nostalgia: "his incessant warning that Americans should be terrified of being “on your own.”" Millions of older Americans would be duly terrified to not have Social Security or Medicare. Before those programs, surviving to old age often meant dying in poverty. How about instead of destroying those programs we implement some means testing so that folks like Mr. Will aren't collecting those benefits while trashing their existence?

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Paul R Getto 1 year, 7 months ago

It's amusing sometimes to watch Mr. Will worry out loud.

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just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 1 year, 7 months ago

"Progress, as progressives understand it, means advancing away from, up from, something. But from what?"

That's easy-- from plutocracy and the grinding poverty, trashing of civil rights and destroyed ecosystems it leaves in its wake, all of which are what George and the new GOP (Grand Ole Plutocracy) want you to believe were the original vision of the founding fathers.

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