By Ruth Marcus
The serious news, such as it was, out of President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast concerned the escalating violence in Egypt.
The fun news was his description—and do I ever identify with this one—of his new personal prayer: “Lord, give me patience as I watch Malia go to her first dance, where there will be boys. Lord, have that skirt get longer as she travels to that dance.”
The more interesting part, I thought, involved the president’s linkage of governmental action with moral responsibility, and his explanation for why the first is necessary to fully implement the second.
“There’s only so much a church can do to help all the families in need, all those who need help making a mortgage payment or avoiding foreclosure, or making sure their child can go to college,” Obama said. “There’s only so much that a nonprofit can do to help a community rebuild in the wake of disaster. There’s only so much the private sector will do to help folks who are desperately sick get the care that they need.
“And that’s why I continue to believe that in a caring and in a just society, government must have a role to play; that our values, our love and our charity must find expression not just in our families, not just in our places of work and our places of worship, but also in our government and in our politics.”
Obama’s remarks resonated because I’ve been bristling recently at conservatives’ dual hijacking: morality and the Constitution as the domain of small-government conservatives.
I’d like them back.
The tea party-infused national conversation revolves around government as tyrant, or at least government as bully. Government, in this view, is the out-of-control institution that instructs citizens what light bulbs they can buy and what food they should eat. As Obama described the debate, “one side’s version of compassion and community may be interpreted by the other side as an oppressive and irresponsible expansion of the state or an unacceptable restriction on individual freedom.”
Except that the positive case for government—indeed, the lasting necessity of government as a moral matter—goes largely unmentioned. Ceding morality to the anti-government forces is a dangerous omission, and it was useful for the president to fill the void on his side of the argument.
My second gripe—the conservative usurpation of the constitutionalist mantle—didn’t come up in Obama’s remarks, but it was implicit in his discussion of the state and freedom, and in the context of the debate about the constitutionality of the health care act’s individual mandate.
I was reminded while reading a quote from Newt Gingrich in reporter Amy Gardner’s Washington Post story about the blend of fiscal and social conservatives in the tea party movement in Iowa.
“I’m deeply committed to constitutional government,” Gardner quoted the former House speaker as saying.
Well, me too. It’s my Constitution as much as it is Michele Bachmann’s. She and I may disagree about its meaning, but I am just as committed to its enduring importance.
The folks on my side of the political spectrum ought to be saying so. Through their silence, they risk being portrayed as the anti-constitutionalists.
Ruth Marcus’ e-mail address is marcusr(at symbol)washpost.com.
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group