One of the most striking and troubling aspects of President Barack Obama’s leadership is his grandiosity. I do not refer here to personal vanity, although that, too, seems to be among his weaknesses. In 2008 then-candidate Obama told Patrick Gaspard, “I think I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.” In the summer of 2010, President Obama accused congressional Republicans of having spent twenty months “politicking,” then warned them that “They forgot I’m pretty good at politicking” too. Three months later his party lost six seats in the Senate and sixty-three in the House.
While the president’s vanity shows itself in his thinking that he is better at ordinary politics than he really is, his grandiosity is manifested in his desire to transcend ordinary politics, to do really big and memorable things. President Obama’s ambition is not merely to execute the office of the presidency in a dignified and competent manner, but to enact policy changes that will vault him into the ranks of the few lastingly consequential presidents.
It is safe to conclude that this grandiosity is an authentic expression of his character, since he reveals it in both public and private arenas. He has told the world that he wants to “fundamentally transform” America and even that he hopes his presidency will allow the “planet” to begin to “heal.” In private he has told his Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner, that a presidential legacy of preventing a second Great Depression is “not enough for me.”
It would be unfair to deny that there is something impressive in the president’s grandiosity, that it is nobler than the petty aims of the ordinary politician who seems ambitious mainly to enjoy the honor and power that accompanies high office. Nevertheless, this grandiosity has also carried serious costs for the president himself, for his party, and for the country. He wants to do big things; but big things are difficult and therefore of necessity controversial. Thus his ambitions have turned out to be self-frustrating. He wanted to be, and promised to be, a unifying figure; yet the ambitious character of his legislative program has made him among the more polarizing presidents in our history. His presidency has strained considerably the bonds of civic friendship among Americans and made political cooperation more difficult at a time when it is all the more demanded by looming fiscal problems.
Charles Kesler’s I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism comes as a helpful and timely lesson on the larger importance of Obama’s grandiosity. Kesler reminds us that this trait is not just one politician’s failing, but rather a constant temptation of the larger progressive movement to which Obama belongs.
Kesler situates Obama as the latest in a presidential line of liberal progressives, including Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. For such progressives, Kesler observes, politics is not merely about trying to meet the crises of the moment and ameliorate the problems confronted by the present generation. It is rather about getting the country on the right side of history understood as a progressive force, clearing the way for History’s endless Progress, understood as ever-increasing equality and social solidarity. This vision of politics, of course, shares little with the more modest aims that seem to have animated most of the American founders, who sought to establish a government with considerable powers, but circumscribed by relatively well-defined and limited ends.
Kesler’s account forces us to think more deeply about the dangers of progressivism’s transformative ambitions. The most obvious among these is its stress on amity among citizens. For progressives, government must lead the way in ensuring that we take better care of each other. It desires fellow citizens to think of each other as friends and even as family. As President Obama has often admonished us, we must be our brother’s keeper.
Yet nothing is more deadly to friendship than when one party seeks a greater intimacy than the other can accept, a misstep that often dissolves the relationship with feelings of frustration and bitterness. Kesler’s story reminds us of how often American progressivism has forced such unfruitful exchanges. Progressives from Wilson to Obama propose a new leap forward in the role of government as a tool of mutual aid. When conservatives object and seek to preserve the existing arrangements, which invariably already include considerable social assistance for the unfortunate, progressives accuse them of “social Darwinism,” of repudiating all social obligations, of favoring a society that says even to the weakest, “you’re on your own.”
Progressivism’s ever-increasing ambitions continually prove controversial, Kesler observes, because while the rhetoric of progress resonates with some aspects of the American character, other equally potent strands in our culture oppose it. In particular, progressivism seems to call the nation to continually supersede the political thought of the American founding, to supplement and finally replace its emphasis on individual rights and limited government with a more generous and enlightened vision of society.
Yet many Americans revere the founding and take seriously the founders’ claims to have discovered the truth for all time about the rights of human beings. The mind of such Americans was well-expressed by that astute and underappreciated critic of progressivism, Calvin Coolidge, who once remarked that because the principles of the Declaration of Independence are true, any effort to “progress” beyond them is in fact a form of retrogression. For such American conservatives—who show no signs of disappearing, to the consternation of progressives—the main aim of our politics is to preserve the principles of the founding and to live according to them, not to get beyond them.
Progressivism is by now an established part of America’s political tradition, yet it paradoxically shows itself almost perpetually at war with the American people as they are. The people are never quite what progressives demand that they should be. This is not to say that the American people are fundamentally conservative. This idea is comforting to conservatives, but not really true, as the manifold triumphs of progressivism attest.
On the other hand, the people are never as open to progress as the progressives think they should be. We can measure Obama’s ill-considered progressive grandiosity by considering, in historical context, his truly fantastic desire to “fundamentally transform America.” Yet at no time in our history has a majority of Americans really desired any such fundamental transformation.
Only reluctantly were the revolutionaries persuaded to declare independence, after years of trying less momentous steps; and even the Revolution itself was seen as necessary to protect pre-existing rights, not to usher in a new conception of them. Later, the important step of ratifying the Constitution was presented by its Federalist defenders as necessary to preserve the union as an adequate framework for the protection of natural rights.
Even Franklin Roosevelt, when he addressed the American people in one of their most innovative moods, had to present his New Deal as a consistent extension of the founding vision of individual rights. Arguably, the only time the American people openly accepted something like fundamental transformation was at the end of the Civil War, with the ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. Even here, however, they proved themselves more conservative than progressive. After all, they embraced such change only after a horrific blood-letting that no responsible leader would want to replicate. And even then the changes that were implemented could be understood, as Lincoln understood them, as an attempt to live more fully in accordance with the original doctrine of natural rights, rather than to progress above and beyond it.
Given the social friction that progressivism so reliably generates, even and especially when it most desires to increase social solidarity, one begins to suspect its inconsistency not only with the American character but also with human nature. Progressivism can win a hearing because the people are usually morally serious enough to approve reforms that remedy serious abuses, but it inevitably proves controversial because the people are rarely so visionary as to expect or want anything like a fundamental transformation of the social order to which they are accustomed.
One need not embrace the whole of Machiavelli’s amoral political teaching to agree with his important insight that “the people” are easier to satisfy politically than “the great” because the people mostly want only not to be oppressed, while the great want to oppress. Our progressives, however, are clearly among “the great.” A life of ordinary and quiet acquisition is not enough for them; they are ambitious to rule the people with a view to ends the people never wholly embrace. This is not to say—cynically and unfairly—that progressives just want to oppress the people. Their real aim is not to oppress but to improve the people. But such efforts to force improvement can be experienced as very oppressive indeed by the people, who primarily want to be left alone.
Machiavelli’s understanding of the people is yet more subtle, however, and considering it further brings to light another of progressivism’s troubling characteristics. According to Machiavelli, while the people ordinarily want only to avoid oppression, under certain circumstances they can be lifted to something higher, something that makes them partake of the ambitious character of the great. Specifically, when the people are used to living in a republic they learn to insist on governing themselves. They may want to be left alone, but to the extent that there are public affairs the people expect to have a say in directing them.
As Kesler’s examination reminds us, however, progressivism proves itself hostile to the people’s right of self-government. By calling the people to a utopian elevation of character of which they are not capable, progressivism undermines the modest but still impressive elevation to which a properly habituated people can aspire: the dignity of popular rule.
This hostility to democratic self-government is built into the demand for progress understood as irreversible improvement in social conditions. Each new step in the march of progress must be embraced as permanent, with the necessary consequence that the people are no longer permitted to deliberate about it. In terms of public policy, this problem shows itself in the progressive insistence that new, more generous programs be accepted not only as suited to present social needs, but as “entitlements” with which we may not tamper. In terms of popular rhetoric it is manifested in the progressive slogan that we cannot “turn back the clock,” which really means that progressive political victories are no longer subject to the people’s choice. The more progressivism triumphs, the smaller the sphere within which the people are permitted to determine the character of public policy.
What, then, does the future hold for progressivism and America? It is impossible to say with certainty, but Kesler’s book is invaluable because it enables us to free our thinking about this important question from the dominance of the prevailing headlines. Four years ago progressivism seemed triumphant. Two years ago it seemed defeated. Today its fortunes seem to rise and fall with the week’s polls or the performances in the most recent presidential debate.
Kesler reminds us, though, that whatever happens from election to election, an ideology inconsistent with human nature can never be irreversibly victorious. Progressivism is powerful, but its pretensions to invulnerability are hollow. The ongoing controversy over President Obama’s agenda is not, as he might say, only a “bump in the road,” but a sign that progressivism’s victories truly stimulate conservative opposition, as well as renewed interest in and love for progressivism’s target: the founding vision of natural rights and limited government.
Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press).