The Obama Watch

American Exceptionalism Under Assault

The Obama presidency has turned the American Social Contract on its head.

By 2.27.12

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In this election cycle, one noticeable phenomenon is how the Republican presidential candidates are emphasizing our country's founding principles -- liberty and freedom -- more than in any campaign in the modern political era. Each speaks often of the Declaration of Independence. Citing articles of the Constitution is commonplace.

The president's record of evoking such themes stands in stark contrast. In his State of the Union address, for example, our president made only one perfunctory reference to the Constitution and then went on to misquote it.

In his campaign speeches, the president carefully co-opts key Republican themes like reducing debt and deficits, exploiting natural gas, making teachers accountable and reducing regulation. Yet, in these acts of political triangulation, he sees no value in pre-empting Republican rivals on basic American principles imbedded in our founding documents.

An Internet search for examples of Obama advocating for liberty and economic freedom is futile. They don't exist. Odd for man who was once a professor of constitutional law.

So, why is the president so silent while his adversaries are so vocal?

The answer lies in the president's own words. In the 2008 campaign he said he was seeking to "fundamentally transform" America. Indeed he is, and this transformation is directed squarely at American Exceptionalism.

The Declaration of Independence was the original American Social Contract. In it, the detail of King George's "abuses and usurpations" laid the predicate for our Exceptionalism in a simple and provocative formula the world had never experienced:

Power would reside with commoners, not kings. The people's representatives would be entrusted with it. Government would be limited and lent to representatives, not vested, with payment on the loan due periodically via elections. Limited government, principally for national protection, would free individuals to pursue their dreams as they wished, and the collective pursuit of these individual dreams would create a great and prosperous nation.

The Contract's counterparties are the government and the governed; it has no legal authority; its validity is derived from the Creator; and the terms of the Contract are simple: power is lent in return for accountability back to the lender, the people.

Legal contracts have an outlet in the courts for dispute resolution. The only avenue for redress of violations of our Social Contract is protest and political upheaval. And this is precisely what the president has wrought.

For example, the stated focus of the Tea Party's anger is fiscal mismanagement, debt, deficits, and entitlements. But the basis for the Tea Party's venom is the president's lack of accountability for such financial mismanagement. The simple yet profound wisdom of the Tea Party is that a nation is not exceptional if it cannot pay its bills or honor its promises.

Similarly, the stated target of the Occupy protestors is amorphous "corporate greed," but the basis for their anger is the lack of accountability implied by the bailouts following the financial crisis. To them it is irrelevant whether the culprit for the crisis was Wall Street CEOs, Fannie Mae, rating agencies, or regulators. They just see a rigged game where the only price exacted was their own joblessness.

The joblessness of the Obama presidency endangers the Contract, but not because a great nation will avoid unemployment. Joblessness threatens exceptionalism when it is driven by political elites versus the politically agnostic marketplace. Workers making typewriters or dot matrix printers did not need a lesson in Creative Destruction to appreciate that their jobs were displaced by the personal computer and the laser printer.

But to lose a job to political payback (the Obama stimulus Recovery Act requiring union-only hiring), or to political calculation (refusing the Keystone Pipeline in favor of the Sierra Club), or to government edict (the Offshore Moratorium Act eliminating offshore drilling), or to regulatory overreach (Dodd-Frank and Obamacare), is to suffer a shift in accountability from the governed to the institutions of government entrenchment and expansion.

The president speaks often of fairness, and of everyone doing their "fair share." But fairness, to this president, is determined not by the people but by the ruling class in the form of new regulations, new mandates, and new bureaucracies. As the walls of these government fortresses grow ever higher, they become permanent.

Thus the Obama presidency turns the Contract on its head. As government becomes permanent, the will of the people is eclipsed by the will of the bureaucracy.

For this president, power-on-loan is a quaint notion or curious relic, rather than our most sacred covenant. The president's 2008 election promise to fundamentally transform America has revealed itself to be an attempt to redefine that covenant.

Mr. Obama says that keeping America's "promise alive" is the "defining issue of our time." Indeed it is. The promise is to preserve our Exceptionalism and defend it from those who seek its redefinition and destruction.

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About the Author

Emil W. Henry Jr. is CEO of Henry, Tiger, LLC, a private equity firm, and is a former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury.