The New York Times commissioned Columbia University’s Mark Lilla to produce a sprawling review of Charles R. Kesler’s critique of President Obama’s presidency (I Am the Change). Surprise!—Lilla doesn’t like the book. He calls it “that rarest of things, a cheap inflationary takedown.” He devotes two pages in the September 30 “Book Review” to making light of Kesler’s arguments.
It’s a good performance on Lilla’s part—sprightly and entertaining. But in dismissing Kesler’s conservative critique, he glosses over a crucial reality of our time—namely, the increasing intensity in the ongoing debate between those who want to invest more power in a growing federal government and those who fear the consequences of executive power. He suggests he just can’t understand why anyone could think Obama is fostering a federal power concentration that could possibly bother anybody.
It’s all about ObamaCare, he finally concludes, feigning just as much puzzlement over how anyone could think this represents anything untoward in American democracy.
Kesler’s study suggests that American politics has called forth three presidents who sought to aggrandize the presidency and the executive branch to a far greater extent than all others. They are Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. And, says Kesler, Obama is in their tradition, as he has sought to arrogate to himself powers and prerogatives of office far in excess of his predecessors.
The trend lines are unmistakable and worthy of a serious debate. Lilla’s flawed review seeks to ridicule Kesler while ignoring the debate. Unfortunate.