Winston Churchill wrote, in something of advice to young undergraduates, that a “man’s life must be nailed to the cross either of Thought or Action. Without work,” he explained, “there is no play.”
What he meant was that the serious person, whether beginning their careers or throwing themselves into books, must devote themselves wholly to the task – nail themselves to the cross for it.
True to this spirit, President Barack Obama delivered his second inaugural on Monday, laying out his plan for the next four years of action and spending no time at all thinking whether it made sense or not.
Obama made his public oath by swearing in on a pair of Bibles: one belonging to Abraham Lincoln, and the other to Martin Luther King, Jr. There is a certain offense in President Obama thinking to compare himself to our greatest Americans, but perhaps this was merely symbolic of a larger irreverence for history present throughout his speech.
Co-opting the venerated words of the Founding Fathers and Abraham Lincoln, the president began by citing the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence and reminding us “that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.”
He is right, of course, and this is the defining character of an American conservative. We alone have claim to being founded upon such political truths – a nation whose birthday is linked not to the day of independence, July 2, but to the declaration of our people’s principle, July 4.
Alas, our most self-important of presidents could not contain himself from agendas. Instead of speaking to the exceptional character of American government, he spoke of the needs of a “modern economy” – the duty to provide access to highways and railroads, schools and colleges, a market of “rules to ensure competition and fair play”, and a general charge to “care for the vulnerable.”
Perhaps what is most remarkable, and most depressing, is what this says about how the president thinks of us all. Here we are in the 21st Century, more connected to one another than at any other point in our history, and he still does not trust in society to provide for one another in serious ways. For him, and for the left as a whole, the answer continues to be “government.”
“For the American people,” he argues, “can no more meet the demands of today's world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias.”
You see, unless we choose his brand of “collective action”, we automatically choose to “act alone.” There is no middle ground in this philosophy; with President Obama, there never is. What of charities, churches, businesses, foundations, food drives, families, and all manner of association that human beings have relied upon?
Dash it all, call a bureaucrat.
“But while the means will change,” he assures us, “our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American. That is what this moment requires. That is what will give real meaning to our creed.”
Clearly, the president has no constitutional scholars writing his speeches. If he did, then he would be aware that the means are children of the ends. Why did Lincoln take such great pains over drafting the Emancipation Proclamation? The answer comes from Allen Guelzo, who wrote of the Emancipation that:
“In Lincoln's case, prudence demanded that he balance the integrity of ends (the elimination of slavery) with the integrity ofmeans (his oath to uphold the Constitution and his near-religious reverence for the rule of law).”
You may swear on his Bible, Mr. President, but you remain unworthy of even his shadow. Our Constitution was born of our Declaration, the “frame of silver” around our “apple of gold” – another phrase of Lincoln’s.
So let us not be fooled. President Obama carries no love of our past; rather, he speaks of new “commitments we make to each other — through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security,” saying that “these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
Our commitments are government programs – the “only things we all belong to,” to steal a phrase from the Democratic National Convention.
The rest of the speech is unremarkable: a list of policy initiatives linked together by petty oral service to “We the People” – a chain of “We must,” “Together we can,” and “My fellow Americans.” This is not the tradition of our noble Founding; it is the tradition of Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom, Roosevelt’s New Deal, and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society – it is the President's “New Foundation.”
He does give an accidental nod to Churchill near the end, saying that, “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time — but it does require us to act in our time.”
Act. Move. Forward, forward. Half a league, half a league, half a league onward.
Am I alone dismayed?