January 25, 2013

JOSEPH REISERT: Obama's vision of America far different from Kennedy's

Joseph R. Reisert

Fifty-two years ago, President John Kennedy inspired a generation of Americans when, at the climax of his inaugural address, he issued this ennobling directive to his fellow citizens: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

In President Barack Obama's America, you don't need to ask what your country will do for you: In his second inaugural, Obama boasted about what government already does for you and made clear his intention to make it keep doing more.

Rather than call us to all to sacrifice for the common good, Obama reassured us that there's nothing shameful about taking money from the government, because we all take money from the government, which somehow also means that we're not "a nation of takers."

Obama has the audacity to hope that we won't notice the difference between Kennedy's vision of an America in which citizens are expected to be self-reliant contributors and his own vision of an America in which the people are infantilized subjects whose government will "make them know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm."

In what passes for modesty in this president, he insists that he is not trying to "settle a centuries-long debate about the role of government for all time."

Settling it for a generation will suit him just fine, because being progressive means that every time you win an election you can pass off your supporters' ideological demands as dreams from the Founding Fathers.

That was the central message of Obama's address: that his progressive vision of government is not a repudiation of our nation's founding ideals, but rather their realization.

Recognizing that "what makes us American is our allegiance" to the ideals of articulated in the Declaration of Independence -- "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" -- Obama argues that we must "bridge the meaning of those words with the reality of our time."

American history, he argues, is a story of increasing freedom -- the abolition of slavery, the enfranchisement and liberation of women, the end of segregation and increasing integration of the races and the dawn of gay rights. Thus far, his argument is quite traditional and altogether correct.

Americans in every age have promoted our common good by working to secure for all the same rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness already enjoyed by their compatriots. That is a noble struggle and one that will not end so long as the timber of humanity remains crooked.

But the reality at the other end of Obama's bridge to the future is not freedom at all but equality. Instead of the same freedom to pursue happiness as everybody else, Obama wants the government to equalize our likelihood of achieving happiness.

This is the radical transformation of American ideals Obama's address proposes.

James Madison wrote in Federalist 10 that "the protection of ... different and unequal faculties of acquiring property" is "the first object of government." Obama wants government to redistribute prosperity so that more of it "rests on the broad shoulders of the middle class." Perhaps he hopes that "the shrinking few" will welcome having less of it to burden their presumably skinnier shoulders.

It is not enough for him that we be equal "in the eyes of God" who sees our souls; we also must be made equal "in our eyes," which focus on more earthly endowments.

Our Constitution protects both the equality of rights and the inequality of property in part because a government that would equalize all our life prospects would need to intervene constantly in our lives and micromanage our affairs. Our forbearers overthrew a king, so that we could govern ourselves, not be treated like children by an officious nanny state.

Our founders also understood that government redistribution makes us all poorer as well as less free. Look at Obama's results so far. What has his $5 trillion of deficit spending over four years bought us? A growing share of working-age people dropping out of the labor force and a "recovery" that looks a lot like a recession.

If we want to preserve our freedom and restore a genuinely shared prosperity and not one taken off the shoulders of others, we will indeed need to reshape the national debate and reclaim the freedom that truly is our common inheritance.

Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.

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