Obama Countering Right-Wing Narrative of Constitution

February 11, 2013

by Jeremy Leaming

Despite attorneys in the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel who appear to have produced a lengthy justification for targeted killings that skewers the English language to wend its around constitutional principles such as due process before the government can deprive a person of liberty, President Obama has nonetheless taken solid action to counter the right’s take on the Constitution as a document that limits government’s ability to take collective action to protect and advance the nation’s welfare.

In a piece for The New Republic, Simon Lazarus, senior counsel to the Constitutional Accountability Center, says it’s about time – likely long overdue -- that progressives provide a compelling alternative to the right’s simplistic, but effective rhetoric of a Constitution that is all about individual rights and a weak central government.

Quickly after the president provided some staunchly liberal rhetoric in his Second Inaugural address, Republican lawmakers, such as Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-K.Y.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) brayed that the president was ushering in or attempting to an age of radical liberalism. Grassley, as noted here, also groused that the president had turned the Second Amendment on its head by arguing that new measures aimed at curbing gun violence were no threat to the individual right to bear arms.

The president’s rhetoric on the Constitution, Lazarus writes, “echoes that of the Reconstruction Congresses which enacted the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. In line with then-existing Supreme Court precedent, they believed Congress empowered to prevent interference with the exercise of individual rights created by constitutional prohibitions on government. Specifically, they held the federal government responsible for preventing private violence and intimidation designed to deter former slaves from voting and enjoying other constitutionally prescribed liberties. And they wrote into the amendments express authority for Congress to ‘enforce’ that responsibility.”  


“By engaging the right on the meaning of the Constitution,” Lazarus concludes, the president “has broken new ground. For progressives, he has sketched a fresh template for countering their adversaries’ long-unanswered constitutional narrative.”

And the president, according to polls on his proposals for gun safety measures and comprehensive immigration reform, has a growing number of Americans on his side, including younger voters. The New York Times today notes that young people interviewed in Missoula, Mont. a tiny liberal enclave in a red state, are giving “voice to a trend that is surprising pollsters and jangling the nerves of Republicans” of the belief that government can make a significant difference in improving the lives of Americans.

Lazarus has long argued against the far right’s efforts to derail the work of government, and mask its rhetoric, partly with the claim that the Constitution simply does not provide the federal government power to effectively address national concerns. See Lazarus’s ACS Issue Brief exploring the Right’s ongoing effort for jurisprudence that harkens to an era when a right-wing Supreme Court invalidated congressional efforts to reform the conditions of workers.  

Lazarus is also not alone in arguing that progressives must effectively counter the right-wing narrative of a weak central government. (Some have argued that often too many on the right appear to long for Articles of Confederation, which preceded the Constitution and did envision a weak central power.)

University of Texas law school professor and historian William E. Forbath has argued, for instance, that the Constitution provides national lawmakers to address economic inequality. Stanford law school professor Pamela S. Karlan has also long championed the liberal principles of the Constitution and noted the right’s efforts to erode the government’s power to tackle national issues of great import.