The most hysterical belief animating the Republican Party during the last half-dozen years is its conviction that Barack Obama is not merely a liberal following the tradition of Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson, and Clinton but a uniquely radical figure. That conviction has receded from mainstream conservative discourse as predictions of hyperinflation and Greek-like social chaos have failed to materialize, but it hasn’t disappeared completely. It appears today in Daniel Henninger’s Wall Street Journal column, which denounces what it calls “Barack Obama’s revision of the American system of government that existed from 1789 until 2009.” In this alarming formulation, every American president before Obama, good and bad alike, occupies one category, with Obama in a place of his own: “This is not the Democratic Party of Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Jimmy Carter or even Bill Clinton,” he writes.
What follows from this wild claim is a mundane series of complaints about Obama using federal agencies to administer laws rather than passing new ones through Congress. But Henninger produces what he purports to be Obama’s confession of his secret plan to “abolish Congress.” He locates it in Obama’s 2011 speech in Osawatomie, Kansas. Here is Henninger’s description of the telling moment:
Barack Obama, channeling decades of theory, says constantly that the traditional system has failed. He said it in his 2011 Osawatomie, Kan., speech: “It doesn’t work. It has never worked.” He has attacked Congress repeatedly as a failed institution, teeing it up for mass revulsion just as he did the 1%.
So, according to Henninger, here is the telling confession, the moment where Obama announced that the traditional American system of checks and balances has never worked. In fact, if you read the speech, Obama was not talking about Congress or the American system of government at all. He was referring to right-wing economic theory, not the layout of American government at all:
Now, just as there was in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, there is a certain crowd in Washington who, for the last few decades, have said, let’s respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune. “The market will take care of everything,” they tell us. If we just cut more regulations and cut more taxes — especially for the wealthy — our economy will grow stronger. Sure, they say, there will be winners and losers. But if the winners do really well, then jobs and prosperity will eventually trickle down to everybody else. And, they argue, even if prosperity doesn’t trickle down, well, that’s the price of liberty.
Now, it’s a simple theory. And we have to admit, it’s one that speaks to our rugged individualism and our healthy skepticism of too much government. That’s in America’s DNA. And that theory fits well on a bumper sticker. (Laughter.) But here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. It has never worked. (Applause.) It didn’t work when it was tried in the decade before the Great Depression. It’s not what led to the incredible postwar booms of the ‘50s and ‘60s. And it didn’t work when we tried it during the last decade.
Note that Obama is explicit here in his belief that the vision he’s attacking, the one that has “never worked,” has not been in place throughout American history — he cites, for instance, the postwar era as a time when right-wing economic policy did not prevail. In any case, Henninger’s implication that Obama has explicitly denounced the traditional American system of government is simply a lie.