On January 20th, 2009, it is overwhelmingly likely that either John McCain or Barack Obama will be called upon to utter the Presidential oath of office, set forth with majestic simplicity in Article II, section 1 of the United States Constitution:
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.
“Preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” That is what the President of the United States promises to do.
Two days ago, a 2001 interview with then Illinois State Senator Barack Obama from WBEZ radio surfaced (I wrote about it here). The ostensible subject was the civil rights movement: its triumphs and tragedies. But what catapulted the interview into the headlines were the candid and revealing comments Obama made about the Supreme Court and the Constitution.
The Warren Court, Obama said, was “not that radical.” It “never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth.” Moreover, ” “it didn’t break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers and the Constitution.” (My emphasis.)
The problem with the Constitution, Obama went on to say, is that it is merely “a charter of negative liberties”: it only tells you what the state and federal government “can’t do to you.” Hence the tragedy of the civil-rights movement and its focus on merely “formal” rights: it lost “track of the political and community organizing activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change.”
As Steven G. Calabresi noted in in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Obama’s reflections on the Supreme Court and the Constitution raise the question of whether
Mr. Obama can in good faith take the presidential oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution” as he must do if he is to take office. Does Mr. Obama support the Constitution as it is written, or does he support amendments to guarantee welfare? Is his provision of a “tax cut” to millions of Americans who currently pay no taxes merely a foreshadowing of constitutional rights to welfare, health care, Social Security, vacation time and the redistribution of wealth? Perhaps the candidate ought to be asked to answer these questions before the election rather than after.
Those are among the most pressing questions yet raised in this campaign. I wish some enterprising journalist could contrive to pose them to Barack Obama. What do you suppose he would say?
Well, “Change” is the great mantra of the Obama campaign. Perhaps the change will begin with the oath of office itself. Why need he “preserve” or “protect” or “defend” a document which, in another recently released talk, he criticized for reflecting “an enormous blind spot in this culture,” “the fundamental flaw of this country that continues to this day”? Why not say he will endeavor to bring about social justice by putting together “the actual coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change”? So how about:
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, modify the Constitution of the United States in order to bring it into line with my progressive ideas about social and economic justice.
The Constitution, as Obama rightly noted, is in the main a charter of “negative liberties.” It tells the government what it cannot do to citizens. But the other great Obama mantra is Vero Posummus: “Yes we can.” So what if the Constitution forbids this or that intrusion by the government into the liberties and property of its citizens? The Constitution says No. Obama and his minions reply, Yes we can. Here’s the really frightening question: Would anybody notice?