Barack Obama says he came to Washington to "transform America" and to "make the sweeping changes demanded by the people" in the 2008 election. This claim (or delusion) that his victory gave him the right to make fundamental structural changes in our constitutional republic is quite surprising: he must surely know better, having spent four years (1992-96) as a Lecturer or Senior Lecturer in Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago Law School.
In any case, he was mistaken in thinking that the vote was a ringing endorsement of his policies. Data from the respected, bipartisan Battleground Poll show quite clearly the reason he was elected: the approval rating for George W. Bush was 84% after 9/11 but fell steadily to 37% in late 2008, while the percentage who thought the country was headed in the wrong direction rose from 45% to 75%. Throughout this period, a steady 60% of the respondents described themselves as somewhat or very conservative, while the fraction calling themselves somewhat or very liberal never rose above 38% -- and those percentages remain unchanged today.
The truth is that many in the conservative majority felt betrayed by the profligate spending of Congressional Republicans during the Bush Administration, and by Bush's failure to veto any of their excesses. The last straw was his decision, only a month before the election, to "destroy capitalism in order to save it" by approving the $700 billion TARP bank bailout. John McCain inherited their disgust because he showed little commitment to restoration of conservative principles in the party.
The people were eager for change, which is what Obama promised repeatedly during the campaign, but they obviously did not understand just what kind of change he had in mind. His approval rating has fallen from 69% in January 2009 to 45% a year later. Despite his drastic course change, 66% of voters believe the nation is still headed in the wrong direction. The recent Republican triumphs, against the odds, in the elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and especially in Massachusetts can only be construed as a massive repudiation of Mr Obama's policies.
It took Bush most of two terms to ensure that future historians will consider his Presidency a failure, but Obama seems to have earned this dubious distinction in only one year. His significance is not that he is the first African-American in the office, nor is it his adamant adherence to the same discredited Keynesian prescription (viz., increasing taxes and federal spending during a downturn) that converted the Recession of 1929 into the Great Depression. He has instead secured his place in history, such as it is, by his overt attempt to move the country sharply to the Left. He cannot succeed in this folly, but there is a serious risk that he may split the country into two distinct and antagonistic Americas.
Barack Obama and his Congressional ilk are not evil people. No doubt they are quite sincere in their belief that America would be a better place with an expanded, more intrusive but relentlessly benevolent government, with nationalization of the banking system, with central planning of economic development, with universal single-payer health care, with draconian income redistribution, with employment security for all, with free public education through college, with decent subsidized housing for everybody, etc., etc. They may even believe that the "living Constitution" is so malleable that it can accommodate such drastic changes in our society.
There are however many citizens, at least a million times more than the 56 who signed the Declaration of Independence, who are passionately committed to individual liberty, personal responsibility, free enterprise, strictly limited government, and all the other principles expressed in the original Constitution. Mr Obama's vision of America is not recognizable as their beloved country. In 2001, he expressed regret that the Supreme Court had failed "to break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution" – but he needs to understand that there are still plenty of people who will, if necessary, pledge "our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor" in defense of those very constraints.
To date, the conservative and Progressive concepts of America have managed to coexist in the Congress because conservatives have generally given ground slowly, preferring repeated minor losses to disruptive conflict. What creates the present danger is that Mr Obama apparently thinks that he has sufficient political power or personal popularity to abandon gradualism in favor of a direct assault on the foundations of American democracy. He may believe that he is making changes that will benefit all of us, but his attempt to impose a comprehensive social order that is anathema to a large fraction of the population makes him a major existential threat to the kind of diverse American republic that is truly the last best hope of Earth. He needs to learn the meaning of diversity, and of E pluribus unum.
Whether we like it or not, the battle has thus been joined. This is not a dispute about the relative merits of conservative or collectivist government, nor about some limited Constitutional issue that might be resolved by a ruling of the Supreme Court. This is a fateful confrontation over the basic structure of our society, and therefore it is nothing less than a profound Constitutional crisis. There has been nothing like it since the Civil War, or perhaps since General Cornwallis surrendered his sword at Yorktown.