Obama Gets It Right

What are those issues? One concerns the proper role of government in American life.  The Constitution was primarily an effort to define, to set limits, to the power of the state. The Founders understood both the need for  federalism and the dangers of statism. In their effort to “form a more perfect Union” and “secure the Blessings of Liberty  to ourselves and our Posterity,” they were everywhere at pains to circumscribe the reach of state power. Having tasted tyranny first hand, and having pondered the melancholy lessons of history, they understood the awful metabolism of servitude. President Obama was quite right when, way back in 2001,  he described the Constitution as “a charter of negative liberties.”  What he did not understand then — and what he clearly still cannot get his mind around — is that fact that this “negative,” “merely formal” quality of the Constitution is one of its great strengths, not a weakness. In 2001, Senator Obama complained that the Constitution only told you what the state and federal government “can’t do to you,” not what it must do for you. As I noted at the time,

For a couple thousand years, people were desperately eager to frame constraints that would apply to their governments, that would limit, for example, the government’s ability to expropriate their property, to force them to educate their children in a certain way, or subscribe to certain government-mandated beliefs.

That sort of traditional political freedom is not enough for left-wingers. Ever since Marx decried bourgeois freedom as merely “formal,” the left has set out not to preserve freedom but to remake society according to a utopian scheme.

This is exactly what Obama wants to do. The “tragedy” of the civil-rights movement, he said, is that in focusing on “negative” freedom, it tended to “lose 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.”

Bringing about “redistributive change” is what the Obama administration is all about. The victory of Scott Brown is a reminder that even in the most liberal state in the Union, that statist imperative inspires fear and loathing, not support.  How Obama and the powers that be in Washington (and I mean Republicans as well as Democrats) respond will determine the nature and comity of our public conversation for years to come.  The victory of Scott Brown was a sign, a portent, an admonition. The question is, who is paying attention?