Sometimes people who don’t like the president criticize him for being personally arrogant. I don’t know if he is, and I am not sure that it matters. But there is a kind of arrogance in his understanding of politics, and that is of interest because it is not just a reflection of his own personality but of the character of the movement he represents.
Here’s the president on the current showdown with Republicans over the Affordable Care Act:
The Affordable Care Act is a law that passed the House, it passed the Senate, the Supreme Court ruled it constitutional. It was a central issue in last year’ election. It is settled. And it is here to stay.
Nothing that the president says here justifies his claim that the law is a “settled” matter and definitively “here to stay.” It is true that it was enacted by Congress. It is true that it was upheld by the Supreme Court (although only with a significant modification). And it is true that it was an important issue in the last election.
None of this, however, makes it a settled question. In the first place, it was also an important issue in the election before the last one, in which Republicans did better than they had done in decades. Is there something that makes the 2012 somehow cosmically more significant than the 2010 elections? I mean something other than the president’s need to find some apparently objective grounds for disagreeing with the Republicans on this matter? Not at all.
For that matter, the president is being selective even in talking about the 2012 “election,” in the singular. There were in fact many federal elections in 2012, including 435 House elections. The Republicans won the majority of those House elections, and while being promiscuously opposed to Obamacare. So if we were to interpret those election results dispassionately, we’d have to say that the voters voted for exactly what they are getting: continued conflict over the law.
Moreover, contrary to what the president suggests, there is nothing in this course of events that need bind any future Congress. The people have a right to change their minds, and their representatives have a right to act accordingly. A future Congress would be acting legitimately, using its ordinary constitutional powers, if it repealed the act entirely. And, in the meantime, a House majority is likewise using its ordinary powers legitimately in trying to defund or otherwise impede what it disagrees with.
How does this reflect on something bigger than the president’s personality? I think his dogmatism on this issue (although probably partly based on personal concerns about his own legacy) is based to some extent on his embrace of the ideology of “progress.” That ideology believes that history has a certain moral direction, that it moves towards a greater and greater amelioration of inequality through a more and more active role for government. And, for this ideology, history only moves in one direction and conservative reforms that seek to undo progressive accomplishments are therefore morally and politically illegitimate. This is a compelling vision for those who hold it, I suppose, but not for those who do not. In any case, it is not exactly humility to claim that you can know the intentions of History as some kind of supernatural force for Good, and at the same time to assume that your side is always on this right side of this cosmic process.