When President Obama was first elected in 2008 many compared him to the other lanky Illinoisan who made an improbable run to win the White House. At the time, too much was made of the similarities between Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama. But some similarities were worth noting, as I wrote then:
Both won their party’s nominations over more seasoned politicians. Both ascended to the presidency by besting better known and, in many ways, more qualified candidates. Both chose rivals to serve in their cabinets. Both were known for their oratory. And both approached their inaugurations at a time of crisis—Lincoln facing the terrible prospect of civil war and Obama confronting an economic meltdown.
It didn’t take long, once Obama took power, for the comparisons with Lincoln to fade. But new comparisons were made between Obama and other beloved presidents. Obama himself hoped to be as transformative as Ronald Reagan. And others compared Obama to Franklin Roosevelt—a sort of new, New Dealer.
One comparison, however, to past presidents has yet to be made—and is, I think, a more accurate comparison than Lincoln, Reagan, or even Roosevelt . . . Woodrow Wilson.
With a bit of exaggeration columnist George F. Will, in a December 4, 2012, speech at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, said “the most important decision taken anywhere, about anything” in the twentieth-century was “made in the first decade of the century.” It was about the location of Princeton University’s Graduate College. Wilson, the president of Princeton, wanted the college located on the main campus. Andrew Fleming West, the dean of the college, wanted it located a few blocks away.
And in the words of George Will: “Woodrow Wilson . . . a man of unbending temperament when he was certain he was right, which was almost always . . . took his defeat about the graduate college badly, resigned Princeton’s presidency, entered politics and ruined the 20th century.”
If it had been a different time and circumstance, Will could have been describing Barack Obama.
Obama has the same unbending temperament as Wilson. As well as the same self surety of his rightness. But more than personality make Obama and Wilson political kissin’ cousins. Their constitutional philosophies are identical. Wilson popularized the concept that the Constitution is a living document. Against the Founders, Wilson wrote in his 1913 book, The New Freedom, that
the trouble with [their] theory is that government is not a machine, but a living thing. . . . It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton. It is modified by its environment, necessitated by its tasks, shaped to its functions by the sheer pressure of life. No living thing can have its organs offset against each other as checks and live. . . . Living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice. Society is a living organism and must obey the laws of life.
Wilson went on to say, “All that progressives ask or desire is permission . . . to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle.”
Elsewhere, decrying the difficulty of amending the Constitution, Wilson wrote: “The whole business of adaptation has been [the courts], and they have undertaken it with open minds, sometimes even with boldness and a touch of audacity” (Constitutional Government in the United States).
Well, permission was granted, the courts were audacious, and Obama evolved out of Wilson’s constitutional sludge.
In a 2001 interview for Chicago public radio, Obama said the Constitution was “a charter of negative liberties,” which “says what the states can’t do to you [and] what the federal government can’t do to you.” He’s right. The Constitution is “a charter of negative liberties”—restraining and restricting not the governed but the governors. But because the Constitution guarantees “negative liberties,” Obama, like Wilson, sees the Constitution as flawed. In the same interview, Obama said we need to “break free” from Constitutional constraints as far as economic redistribution is concerned because our governing contract “doesn’t say what the federal government or state government must do on your behalf.”
(Is it any wonder why Obama is never compared to John F. Kennedy, who challenged the nation: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”?)
Obama laments that the Constitution places “essential constraints” on the government to bring about, in his view, necessary economic changes. But if the people, he told the interviewer, demand “redistributive change” at the ballot box then Congress and the president must bring about “reparative economic work” in obedience to the people’s voice—the Constitution be damned.
Wilson would be proud of such bold and audacious proclamations. The rest of us, however, can only ponder history’s what if. What if Wilson had gotten his way at Princeton? Perhaps not just the twentieth-century but the twenty-first century would have been saved from ruination. Perhaps we would have been saved from the likes of Barack Obama—the living embodiment of the Wilsonian spirit.
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