Constitutional Opinions

Obama vs. James Madison

Sorry, Mr. President. Effectiveness has never been the first measure of a federal action.

By 1.21.09

In his inaugural address yesterday, President Barack Obama reframed the basis for action undertaken by the federal government. No longer is it right to ask whether a program is appropriate for Washington to take on. The only question is whether the program is effective.

"The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works -- whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end."

He forgets, never knew, or doesn't care that effectiveness has never been the first measure of a federal action. It is an important secondary measure once the constitutionality or appropriateness of an action has been determined. But as James Madison asked in Federalist 41:

"Is the aggregate power of the general government greater than ought to have been vested in it? This is the first question." (Emphasis in original.)

When thinking of our federal government, the first question is and always has been whether that government has too much power -- that is, whether it is too big. Yesterday, Obama tossed that question aside in favor of building a government that "works." The Founding Fathers would be aghast. The people should be, too.

When the effectiveness of a federal action becomes the first and only question, trouble is not far behind. Just ask Barack Obama.

"The secret authorization of brutal interrogations is an outrageous betrayal of our core values, and a grave danger to our security," Obama said in October of 2007. He has made clear that harsh interrogation techniques are unacceptable because they violate core American principles. So, regardless of whether they sometimes work, he will not authorize them based on principle.

Obama recognizes that mere effectiveness is not a sufficient measure of government action. Principles beyond the end justifying the means must apply -- except when it comes to saving us from the financial crisis. Obama is using the recession the same way he accused President Bush of using 9/11 -- as a catch-all crisis to justify vastly expanded federal powers. The question for Obama is, if it was wrong for Bush to do that, why is it now OK for Obama?

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About the Author

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. You can follow him on Twitter at @Drewhampshire.