In speech after speech, and issue after issue, President Obama’s refrain has been that the nation needs a “new foundation.” Whether addressing health care in a recent radio address, the new unemployment figures, or what he sees as the nation’s collapsed international reputation, the president’s pledge is that he will erect “a new foundation.” Even the administration’s plan for reforming the financial regulatory system is subtitled, “A New Foundation.”
Mr. Obama’s advocacy for health care reform is typical of his “new foundation” talk: “We must lay a new foundation for future growth and prosperity, and a key pillar of a new foundation is health insurance reform.”
While at the same time, embracing the idea of a “new foundation,” the president also has positioned himself as an anti-ideological pragmatist who will build upon the handiwork of the American Founders.
Take, for example, Mr. Obama’s use of the Declaration of Independence in his first legislative signing ceremony. Enacting a new law on fair pay, he said, ensures that “we’ll do our part, as generations before us, to ensure those words put on paper some 200 years ago really mean something - to breathe new life into them with a more enlightened understanding that is appropriate for our time.”
What the president means by “a more enlightened understanding” has over the last six months become clearer: Whether you need a new job, a new car, a new mortgage, or perhaps an easier-to-read credit card statement, a tech-savvy doctor, or an energy-efficient light bulb, the “new foundation” is here to help shore up your life.
And not just to shore it up - to transform it and then, possibly, to perfect it! As the president promised in late October 2008, “[W]e are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” Even more, as Mr. Obama proclaimed in his election victory speech, “Our Union can be perfected.” With political transformation, Mr. Obama says, comes the possibility of political perfection.
Of the political truths that make up our nation’s foundation, none was more solidly established by the founding generation than the folly of pursuing political perfection. As George Washington wrote, “We must take human nature as we find it. Perfection falls not to the share of mortals.”
To improve our country, we must build upon our foundation of natural rights, not seek another one. As Washington warned of any attack on the American foundation: “[W]hoever would dare to sap the foundation, or overturn the Structure, under whatever specious pretexts he may attempt it, will merit the bitterest execration, and the severest punishment which can be inflicted by his injured Country.”
In his aspiration to transformation, then, Mr. Obama resembles not Washington and the Founders but his Democratic predecessor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
For Roosevelt, the old American foundation was insufficient. In his 1944 State of the Union speech, Mr. Roosevelt suggested that we must add “security” to our American foundation of the natural rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Security was to be found in eight new rights. All Americans, Roosevelt said, have the right to a job, and the “right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.” Farmers should be guaranteed prices that will ensure them “a decent living,” and all should enjoy free trade. Every family has the right to “a decent home,” to “adequate medical care,” and also to “a good education.” Finally, everyone has the right to be free from the fear of economic ruin.
A “Second Bill of Rights” was necessary, Roosevelt argued, because the original Bill of Rights was not sufficient. After listing the rights protected by the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, Roosevelt summed them up by saying, “They were our rights to life and liberty.” Were? Roosevelt’s curious verb tense shows the danger of introducing new rights that lack a solid foundation.
The problem with trying to make security a natural right is simple. If you have the right to health care, who has the duty to pay for it? If you have the right to cash for your clunker, who has the duty to pay for it? In inventing new rights for all Americans, the government makes a promise it cannot keep except by violating the natural rights of some Americans.
A natural rights foundation provides the most reliable support of limited government. When it comes to our natural rights, our president and all other policymakers must realize that our surest foundation is not new but enduring.
David J. Bobb is director of the Hillsdale College Kirby Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship, in Washington.