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Commander-in-chief vs. Nanny-in-chief, or two cheers for selfishness

November 1st, 2008 - 7:16 am

When he looks back on campaign 2008, what will Obama most regret? I suspect it will the same thing John McCain most appreciated: the now-famous off-hand comment to Joe the Plumber. It’s not, said Obama, that I want to punish success. I merely want to “spread the wealth around.”

That was indeed a revelatory statement. I think it was the second most alarming thing he said in the entire campaign (more on the most alarming thing in a moment). Taken together with other observations by Obama–his almost equally infamous lament in a 2001 interview that the Supreme Court had not ventured into “issues of the redistribution of wealth,” for example–it gave the electorate a rare glimpse behind the carefully constructed “yes-we-can” façade of Obama the messianic healer into the grim “no-you-can’t” engine room of his leveling political philosophy. Let’s say that Obama was successful in overcoming what he disparaged as “essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers and the Constitution” on what government should be required to do to, or for, citizens; let’s say that he succeeded in transforming the Constitution from a “charter of negative liberties” into a menu of positive prescriptions: what then?

It’s my sense that more and more people are asking themselves that question. What, when you come right down to it, would an Obama administration mean for me and my family? What would it mean for the United States? What would happen after all the Greek columns were retired and Obama stepped from the hustings into the Oval Office? Political campaigns thrive on the intoxication of possibility. They end with the sobering strictures of the indicative. Compromise. Trade-offs. Competing interest groups.

It’s easy to see why Obama was (as Colin Powell put it) an “electrifying” figure. Leave aside the $650 million he raised (you can buy a lot of “electricity” for $650 million). Obama was young. He was suave. He exuded energy and confidence. He was the anti-Bush: a first-term Senator who had already distinguished himself as the most left-wing inhabitant of that august chamber. Above all, he was (at least in part) black. What better receptacle for the hopes and dreams of liberal, guilt-infatuated America? What prodigies of expiation might be accomplished were this young, charismatic, half-black apostle of egalitarian change elected President of the United States?

His comment to Joe the Plumber gave us some indication: he would set about trying to “spread the wealth around.” But redistributionist initatives do not take place in a vacuum. They unfold in a context of moral expectation. And this brings me to what may be the most alarming thing Obama let slip in the course of his campaign. I mean his suggestion, uttered in the final few days of the race, that those who do not favor higher taxes are guilty of “selfishness.” (In criticizing his tax and welfare plan, Obama said, McCain and Palin “wanted to make a virtue out of selfishness.”)

I know, I know: nannies through the ages have upbraided their charges with complaints about “selfishness,” an unwillingness to “share,” etc., etc. Such moralism might even be an admirable trait in a nanny. The question voters are beginning to ask themselves in earnest is whether they want a President who regards himself as a sort of super-nanny, supervising the behavior of his charges, i.e., U.S. citizens.

We know what a President as nanny-in-chief looks like, because we had one in Jimmy Carter. In 1979, Carter took to the airwaves to berate the American people for their lack of moral fiber and profligate appetite for energy. Obama echoed that rhetoric when he said, in the course of his campaign, that

“We can’t drive our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times . . . and then just expect that other countries are going to say OK.”

People sat up when they heard that: We can’t drive the sort of car we want, eh? We can’t eat as much as we like, or keep our houses at a temperature we find comfortable? We should alter our behavior to court the approval of “the rest of the world”?

That Carter-moment was soon buried in the progress of the campaign. It deserved more than the flurry of concern it elicited. It showed, just as Obama’s call for the redistribution of wealth shows, the sort of thing he intends to do to address the “selfishness” he perceives in the American people.

Remember his call for “a civilian national security force that’s just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded” as the military”? Remember his suggesting the creation of “national service” programs” that high-school and college students would be required to participate in? Those, too, were initiatives meant to combat our “selfishness.”

As I observed in this space a few weeks ago, Obama espouses a form of what James Piereson has called “punitive liberalism.” Because he regards the American people as essentially selfish (a sentiment memorably reinforced by Michelle Obama when she described the America was “just downright mean“), Obama cannot help regarding success as a form of failure. That side of Obama’s program does not play well outside his inner circle, so he has been careful to overlay it with seductive talk about “tax cuts for 95 percent of taxpayers”–an absurdity on the face of it since 43 percent of those who file do not pay any income tax at all. (Meanwhile, it is worth remembering that those reporting the top 1 percent of adjusted gross income pay nearly 40 percent of all income taxes collected, while the top 5 percent pay more than 60 percent. To use another word Obama likes, is that “fair”? How much more does want?)

“Selfishness” can be a vice. It can also be another name for that “well-ordered self-love” that Thomas Aquinas extolled as “right and natural.” (I have more to say about selfishness and altruism here.) But the important issue facing the American people at the moment is whether they wish to elect a commander-in-chief or a nanny-in-chief. Obama’s seductive rhetoric and and emollient promises have not been able to conceal his ambitions to become America’s protector and nanny-in-chief. He wants you to be happy–but on his terms. He wants to tell you what to drive, what temperature to keep your house, how much to eat. He wants to conscript your children in “voluntary” national service programs that are all-but-mandatory. He wants to determine how prosperous you will be allowed to be–and then to tax you back to a pre-determined level if you make too much. He has similar plans on the international front. He craves approval for America from the “international community, which means he will do everything he can to accommodate that community. He dislikes criticism so much, he is willing to call upon his supporters to silence journalists and besmirch the character of Joe the Plumber, using supposedly protected state information to do it.

In short, it’s your life and Obama wants to run it for you. On Tuesday, Americans will have the choice between electing a leader and a chaperone. Obama has vastly out-spent and–it saddens me to say–out-campaigned McCain. But that doesn’t mean he is better suited to lead America in this difficult time. I suspect that, in their heart of hearts, most Americans know that.

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