Last month, I had the pleasure of speaking at the Centre, and of spending ten days in London and Oxford. Goodness knows there’s plenty of media coverage of the U.S. in Britain – sometimes I think there’s too much – but the closer you look, the less satisfactory it is. That’s probably true everywhere, but our linguistic similarities may end up making trans-Atlantic misunderstandings easier.
One of the subjects I found the least understanding about in Britain – though not, I hasten to add, in the Centre – is the connection that American conservatives draw between constitutional and limited government, American exceptionalism, and their discomfort with both the American Progressivism and the Obama administration. A common motif in press comment in Britain (and in the U.S.) is that Republicans or conservatives – the mash-up of the two is revealing, if incorrect – are simply unreasonable, petulant, and extreme. That charge is false, but it is a very old one, and it reveals something about the nature of the fundamental conflict in the U.S. political system.
American conservatives understand that the American government is supposed to be a government of limits. In Britain, until the unfortunate advent of the European Union, the Commons – though constrained by tradition and precedent – had the power to do anything that was not naturally impossible. It’s natural that the American system is different and exceptional: it was created in reaction to the British one, and as a broader rejection of unconstrained, kingly European governments.
When the defense of the nation is at stake, the President is supposed to be energetic. In the conduct of American diplomacy, he takes the lead. But unlike the King-in-Parliament, the American Union was not created to do things. In fact, it was created not to do things. This puzzles Europeans, who think that the purpose of government is to be always up, running around, and doing things, but the reason for the Founders’ caution is clear.
The Founders understood that, while government was necessary to protect fundamental liberties, it is also the only institution in society that can destroy them. The power of business or the church is nothing compared to the power of a state without limits, backed by the tax collector and ultimately by force. The example of Eastern Europe under Communism shows that while civil society may triumph eventually, the brute power of the state will prevail now.
The Constitution’s answer to this dilemma was not to trust government to do the right thing, or even to set down rules on paper that might restrain it. It was to create a system composed of checks and balances, the separation of powers, and the setting of one faction against another, all with the aim of ensuring that the government does nothing radical, unconsidered, or dangerous to the liberties of the American people.
All that is Constitution 101. They are truths that every American – indeed, everyone in the world – should acknowledge. And that applies particularly to President Obama, who – apart from serving as our Chief Executive – was educated at Harvard Law, and then taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago. If any man can be expected to understand the Constitution, and expound it to Americans, that man is Barack Obama.
So what does President Obama think about the Constitution? In an interview earlier this year with NBC’s Matt Lauer, he said that what has “frustrated people is that I have not been able to force Congress to implement every aspect of what I said in 2008. Well, it turns out our Founders designed a system that makes it more difficult to bring about change than I would like sometimes.”
Mr. President, this isn’t a problem. It’s a virtue. It’s the way the system was supposed to work. Even when one party controls both Congress and the White House – as the Democrats did from 2008 to 2010 – the President is not supposed to be able to “force Congress” to bend to his will. This is not a parliamentary democracy. It is a federal union and a republican democracy, where, under the limits set forth by the Constitution, Congress makes the laws and the President sees them faithfully executed.
And what does the President mean by “it turns out”? A graduate of Harvard Law, and a lecturer on constitutional law, should not be surprised by the Constitution’s separation of powers. Indeed, as President, he should expound it to the American people. His oath of office requires him to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution, and nothing is more integral to the Constitutional design than its checks and balances.
Unfortunately, there is a long tradition in the United States, dating back to President Woodrow Wilson, of Progressive resentment of the Constitution, precisely because it constrains their ability to do as they please. In 1885, Wilson described reverence for the Constitution as “political witchcraft,” and argued that “the more open-eyed we become, as a nation, to its defects . . . the better.”
Foremost among those defects was the separation of powers, which Wilson viewed as a terrible evil: “No living thing can have its organs offset against each other as checks, and live.” That is the tradition in which President Obama is working: the purpose of government is to take action, and to the extent the Constitution prevents the government of the day from doing what it wishes, the Constitution is in the wrong.
This is not an abstract problem. In January, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision reaffirming the right of religious institutions to control their own employment. The Court recognized that if federal anti-discrimination law applied to churches, as the federal U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission maintained it did, religious groups would lose the ability to shape their own “faith and mission.”
While the Court’s decision was welcome, it is a bad day when an agency of the federal government asserts that it has the right to monitor firings in every church and chapel in the land. The Constitution was established to protect the freedom of religion, not to give the government the power to force a minister onto a congregation.
That case, serious as it was, is as nothing beside the anti-conscience mandate in Obamacare, which requires religious employers to provide abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization, regardless of any objections of conscience. There lies the flaw of limitless liberalism: it knows no stopping point, recognizes no exceptions, and regards diversity of belief as a problem to be overcome by energetic government, not a virtue to be protected by wise restraint.
The problem here is simple. The American system is designed to limit. President Obama wants to do what he will. It is not surprising that the President regards the Constitution’s constraints with surprise and regret. They offer him nothing except frustration. If that frustration is the banner under which he runs for re-election, the contest this fall will be a lively clash of the fundamental principles that have defined American politics since the Age of Wilson.
Dr. Ted R. Bromund is the Margaret Thatcher Senior Research Fellow in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom in the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. He joined Heritage in 2008 after a decade as the Associate Director of International Security Studies at Yale University, a research and teaching centre dedicated to diplomatic, military and strategic history, and grand strategy.