The Buzz

Obama's Wilsonian Pedigree

George Will has been churning out columns for nearly four decades, and still he’s capable of cutting through the dross of political argument to produce a defining nugget of civic analysis. He did so on Thursday with a column in the Washington Post headlined “Obama the transformer.”

It’s true the column was somewhat derivative of a recent book by Claremont McKenna College’s Charles Kesler. Entitled I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism, the book argues that America has had four transformative progressive presidents bent on untethering the government from what Will calls “the Constitution’s constricting anachronisms.” But Will offers abundant political philosophy of his own in exploring Kesler’s thesis. 

The first three transformative progressives were Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson—all bent on expanding the federal government’s prerogative to take power from the people, to whom it then doles out “certain rights,” as FDR put it. This is the inverse of the Founders’ concept that rights are inherent in human existence, and governments are instituted to protect them, not bestow them.

Wilson, writes Will, essentially rejected the Founders’ formulation because he thought it was an impediment to progress. Here’s where the fourth transformative progressive enters the picture. Writes Will: “The pedigree of Obama’s thought runs straight to Wilson.”

Wilson’s concept was extended by FDR, who saw government as “an instrument of unimagined power” for social improvement. He talked about the “rulers” (a word anathema to the Founders) giving the people “certain rights.” Will quotes Kesler as saying this represents “the First Law of Big Government: the more power we give the government, the more rights it will give us.”

Kesler adds: “Since our rights are dependent on government, why shouldn’t we be?” Indeed, says Will, that pretty much sums up Obama’s view of government and citizen. It comes from FDR’s vision of “an unlimited civilization capable of infinite progress.”

But what Americans want now, says Will, is “not flights of fancy but…a mature understanding of the limits of government’s proper scope and actual competence.” This is a smart analysis by a premier commentator.