This opinion originally appeared in The Corner at National Review Online on 1/15/2012.


Obama’s press conference yesterday was most remarkable for this rank mischaracterization of Republicans:

They have a particular vision about what government should and should not do. So they are suspicious about government’s commitments, for example, to make sure that seniors have decent health care as they get older. They have suspicions about Social Security. They have suspicions about whether government should make sure that kids in poverty are getting enough to eat, or whether we should be spending money on medical research. So they’ve got a particular view of what government should do and should be.

Apparently these comments made an impression over at the Wall Street Journal, too:

The next time Mr. Obama holds a press conference, somebody should ask him to identify by name those who want to repeal Social Security, steal food from orphans and cancel science funding. We’d like to meet these Visigoths. Otherwise, if the fiscal negotiations are going nowhere, perhaps it is because the President simply won’t make an honest argument.

Besides the outright slander in the president’s statement, there is something else going on, something that goes to the root of constitutional government. Some of the commitments the president talked about are things many conservatives believe the federal government shouldn’t be doing, because they believe that state and local governments should see to them. Here, the president is winning because conservatives have failed to disentangle two separate issues in the public debate: what conservatives believe is the proper role of government generally, and what conservatives believe is the proper role of the federal government. The first issue is philosophical, and the second, constitutional.

Obama’s whole position is predicated on the belief that if some government activity is even potentially desirable, then ipso facto the federal government should do it. That the Constitution is based on the principle of limited and enumerated powers for the federal government – and would never have been ratified otherwise – is, to him, one of those antiquated notions that we luckily got over decades ago. Indeed, as Obama explained after the oral arguments in the Obamacare case last year, it would be “unprecedented” for the Supreme Court to strike down a congressional regulation of economic activity: He clearly believes that the federal commerce power is unlimited, and should be, no matter what the Constitution says. In fact, one rather suspects that he’d be perfectly happy to abandon the Constitution altogether, if enough of his fellow liberals started saying the same thing.

Obama has succeeded in hemming conservatives into a position where, if they oppose some federal commitment, then they must be opposed to government undertaking that commitment at any level. Unless conservatives manage to change that, they are going to continue losing elections. It is absolutely vital to disentangle those two very different issues, and win the American public over on each of them separately.

The proper role of government generally is a matter of philosophy: Do you believe in liberty, or do you believe that society should revolve around the government? The proper role of the federal government, on the other hand, is a matter of constitutional law and self-government: Do you believe that states and local communities should handle most of their own affairs, and that there should be constitutional limits on federal power, or do you believe in the absolute power of transient national majorities, unfettered by any constitution? 

This administration has managed to turn the debate between Republicans and Democrats into a struggle between those who believe in the Constitution, and those who believe in unfettered national majority rule. So far, the latter is winning handily. And if you want to know why, just think about how casually conservatives swallow the president’s routine mischaracterization of their philosophy of government, with nary a whimper of protest. 


– Mario Loyola is director of the Center for Tenth Amendment Studies at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.