Presidents can be puzzling. They campaign high, but govern low … except sometimes. They tack one way, then another. But occasionally they let slip what they’re really about. Arguably, Barack Obama did this in his commencement address at Ohio State University last month.
The president’s theme was citizenship, and he spoke of it in morally exalted and traditional terms: “a recognition we are not a collection of strangers; we are bound to one another by a set of ideals and laws and commitments, and a deep devotion to this country that we love.” He highlighted the neighborly acts of “courage and compassion” occasioned by hurricane devastations and the Boston bombing.
From citizenship as private charity and initiative, he then presented it “in its fullest sense … at the national level” as self-government, but defining it as something the Founders, whom he honored for it, would not recognize: progressive liberalism.
Political self-government is people governing their common affairs largely but not exclusively through elected and publicly accountable representatives. Obama captures this sense when he refers to doing “big things and important things together that we could not possibly do alone.” He mentions infrastructure and space exploration. But in the next breath he moves on to public schools and healthcare, as if schooling and doctor visits also necessarily required grand, national undertakings. Give us your poor, your aged, your children, heck, even your periodic medical checkups, and we’ll take care of them so you can breathe free.
He completed his rhetorical maneuver, saying, “We, the people, chose to do these things together—because we know this country cannot accomplish great things if we pursue nothing greater than our own individual ambition.” Here he reduced all private action to individual selfishness. Great endeavors come only through government.
The heart of progressivism is the scientific administration of people’s lives by those who know better, i.e., not only how to achieve public goals but what those goals ought to be. Progressives like our current president see every attempt to keep the administrative state small and accountable, and to reserve decision-making as close to the people as possible, as trying to “gum up the works,” as he put it.
So does Obama favor civic participation or passive enjoyment of government care? He says he deplores spectator citizenship, generously quoting his Republican predecessor: “America needs more than taxpayers, spectators, and occasional voters. America needs full-time citizens.” Yet that is precisely what the progressive state produces, unless participation means activism for further expanding the progressive state.
So it seems that if the dreams of our president come true through the OSU graduating class, our heritage of self-government or, citizenship “in its fullest sense,” will be a civic life governed by the likes of the Internal Revenue Service, the Environmental Protect Agency, the Department of Education, and Obamacare. Inspiring.