President Obama’s Imperious Progressivism

Sometimes people who don’t like the president criticize him for being personally arrogant.  I don’t know if he is, and I am not sure that it matters.  But there is a kind of arrogance in his understanding of politics, and that is of interest because it is not just a reflection of his own personality but of the character of the movement he represents.

Here’s the president on the current showdown with Republicans over the Affordable Care Act:

The Affordable Care Act is a law that passed the House, it passed the Senate, the Supreme Court ruled it constitutional. It was a central issue in last year’ election. It is settled. And it is here to stay.

Nothing that the president says here justifies his claim that the law is a “settled” matter and definitively “here to stay.”  It is true that it was enacted by Congress.  It is true that it was upheld by the Supreme Court (although only with a significant modification).  And it is true that it was an important issue in the last election.

Obama at Planned Parenthood

None of this, however, makes it a settled question.  In the first place, it was also an important issue in the election before the last one, in which Republicans did better than they had done in decades.  Is there something that makes the 2012 somehow cosmically more significant than the 2010 elections?  I mean something other than the president’s need to find some apparently objective grounds for disagreeing with the Republicans on this matter?  Not at all.

For that matter, the president is being selective even in talking about the 2012 “election,” in the singular.  There were in fact many federal elections in 2012, including 435 House elections.  The Republicans won the majority of those House elections, and while being promiscuously opposed to Obamacare.  So if we were to interpret those election results dispassionately, we’d have to say that the voters voted for exactly what they are getting: continued conflict over the law.

Moreover, contrary to what the president suggests, there is nothing in this course of events that need bind any future Congress.  The people have a right to change their minds, and their representatives have a right to act accordingly.  A future Congress would be acting legitimately, using its ordinary constitutional powers, if it repealed the act entirely.  And, in the meantime, a House majority is likewise using its ordinary powers legitimately in trying to defund or otherwise impede what it disagrees with.

How does this reflect on something bigger than the president’s personality?  I think his dogmatism on this issue (although probably partly based on personal concerns about his own legacy) is based to some extent on his embrace of the ideology of “progress.”  That ideology believes that history has a certain moral direction, that it moves towards a greater and greater amelioration of inequality through a more and more active role for government.  And, for this ideology, history only moves in one direction and conservative reforms that seek to undo progressive accomplishments are therefore morally and politically illegitimate.  This is a compelling vision for those who hold it, I suppose, but not for those who do not.  In any case, it is not exactly humility to claim that you can know the intentions of History as some kind of supernatural force for Good, and at the same time to assume that your side is always on this right side of this cosmic process.



  • Bill

    The law was passed by the house, therefore making it constitutional.

    In the 2012 congressional elections the Democrats gained seats and got more votes 51-48% than the democrats. Strange that the author left this out.

    I don’t think the president is making any long term claims at all. He is saying that the is the law and for congress to shut down the government while saying its listening to the voice of the people flies in the face of the last election, and the fact that the bill was passed by both the house and senate, and it has has been challenged time and again in federal courts and upheld every time. It is NOT in violation of the 1st amendment in the least.

    What would you be saying if the democrats decided to shut down the government unless congress changed laws to make abortion legal in every state? I would say to them…. go through the process of changing the laws like every other time it has been done. Don’t bring down the country because you want to kill babies.

  • viva

    While I understand this writer’s point, I think he has cherry picked his argument. I doubt that Obama, a constitutional lawyer, believes that this law will never be subject to change or cannot be changed. As for progressive ideas, the author seems to be making the point that progressives believe they hold the moral ground as they see it. How about a conservative Catholic piece on gun control? Or child hunger? Pick one from the choice of many. Pope Francis has opened our eyes to many new ideas and I welcome them.

  • Will

    In our state, there were more votes for Democratic house representatives than Republican house representatives. Yet our state has more Republican representatives than Democratic representatives. It is called gerrymandering.

  • Michael Leonard

    Everyone misses the point that the reason this law is unconstitutional is that the law eminated from the Senate and no taxation can eminate from the Senate. The constitution gives the House the power to tax, not the Senate, and not the President. Additionally, the bill was ramrodded through the legislature without following the proper rules. It came down to a forced tie-breaker due to a technicality. The entire process stinks and it is this kind of legislation and power grab that has people giving up on politics.

  • Rodney Galles

    When the Supreme Court declared this act to be a tax, they ipso facto declared it to be unconstitutional. The bill enacted, originated in the Senate in violation of Article 1 Section seven of the Constitution.

  • Susan

    You needed to point all the laws that have been changed through out our history..prohibition, Dred Scot, whiskey tax, slavery, and the fence hasn’t been funded, DOMA is ignored, and immigration laws are ignored, are some off the top of my head. LAW OF THE LAND,



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