Richard Reeves

Edmund Burke and Obama 2.0

LOS ANGELES -- First the news: Barack Obama is a hell of a speaker. His first State of the Union message will not change history, but it was a skillful balancing act between the winds of change he wants to ride and the sour and contradictory winds of discontent blowing across the United States.

It is not easy to reconcile the new populism shaping both the right and left in the debates of the day. The president chose to say that the Union is strong, but that is not so. How could it be so when Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, are voting in what amounts to the lockstep of people who despise each other and are confused about their own role in our democracy.

In a two-party democracy it is difficult to speak of reason, when one side speaks -- perhaps it is more accurate to say does not speak -- in unanimous disdain of whatever the majority proposes. The loyal opposition reminds me of Emperor Qin's terracotta army. But then, the majority Democrats often have trouble getting out of their own way, too.

So our political system, like our health care system, is dysfunctional -- at least if these institutions are supposed to be in the business of making life healthier and better for most of the people most of the time. One example of the frailty of the system today is that it could be rocked seismically by the election of one senator in Massachusetts. What happens next in Washington is known but to God. What the Republicans will almost certainly do is stay in their trenches with Emperor Qin. Their obvious goal is to destroy Obama's presidency. (They would argue, with a single voice, of course, that he is taking care of that himself.)

To me, the most important single line in Obama's long address was this: "When I ran for president, I promised that I wouldn't just do what was popular -- I would do what was necessary."

So he should. I would commend to him the words of another pretty fair political thinker, the man considered the most important forerunner or philosopher of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, the British Whig who famously said to the electors Bristol in 1774:

"Gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. ... Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion ...

"Government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination; and what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion."

Those last words condemn his philosophical descendants, the conservatives of the Republican Party. Their determinations seem unrelated to discussion.

The presidency is essentially a reactive job. We do not pay presidents by the hour. We pay them for their judgment. The words of campaigns rarely predict the events of a presidency. In the end, we are dependent on the judgments of the person in the White House when one or two or three events unforeseen threaten the Union. No one remembers whether Lincoln balanced the budget. He was elected to exercise judgment in the great crises of his day.

In Bristol all those years ago, Burke concluded: "Your faithful friend, your devoted servant, I shall be to the end of my life: a flatterer you do not wish for."

President Obama has spent a year trying to flatter congressional Republicans into the orbit of the governance of reason and judgment -- of discussion. He has failed. It is time for him to rely on his own judgment.

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