With Congress pushing back against his proposals for energy, taxes and other matters, President Barack Obama is taking a bend-but-don’t-break posture.
He will compromise on certain details if he must, he signaled at his news conference Tuesday evening, but not on the heart of his key initiatives.
His strategic retreats are a nod to political reality. He is angling to avoid confrontations he probably can’t win, but to sacrifice no more than is absolutely necessary.
On energy, for instance, influential Democratic lawmakers have joined Republicans in opposing Obama’s bid to reduce greenhouse gases through a program that would let companies buy and sell a limited number of permits to pollute.
"When it comes to cap and trade," the president said, using the proposal’s nickname, "the broader principle is that we’ve got to move to a new energy era. And that means moving away from polluting energy sources towards cleaner energy sources."
"I think cap and trade is the best way," Obama said, but he stopped well short of insisting on it.
He did not retreat on contentious issues on which he holds the upper hand. Lifting a federal ban on embryonic stem cell research, he said, was the "right thing to do" despite criticisms from various quarters. Asked why he hasn’t asked Americans to do more to weather the economic crisis, he said, "I think folks are sacrificing left and right."
Obama was less certain and dismissive on topics in which he faces potentially bruising battles with Congress. For example, he minimized a Senate leader’s proposal to end Obama’s signature tax cut for most working families after 2010.
"When it comes to the middle-class tax cut," the president said, "we know that that’s going to be in place for at least the next two years."
The question posed by social scientist Charles Murray at the American Enterprise Institute’s annual dinner this month could hardly have been simpler: Do Americans want the United States to be like Europe?
He asked as someone who admires Europe and Europeans. He asked also because it is becoming increasingly apparent that re-structuring the United States along the lines of the European social democratic model is the change many in the new administration –perhaps including President Obama himself — believe in.
Murray is convinced that Europeanizing America is a bad idea, and not only because the European model creates chronically "sclerotic economies." More significant, he says, is the fact that embracing the European model means discarding the Founders’ revolutionary re-invention of government, and of the relationship between the state and the citizen. Murray argues this would inevitably "enfeeble" the habits and institutions that have been singularly responsible for making America "robust and vital" — an exceptional" nation.
The intent of the modern European welfare state, Murray says, is laudable: to take "some of the trouble" out of life. Dealing with troubles, he concedes, is not always easy or pleasant, but it can lead to satisfactions accessible through no other means. By contrast, those relieved of important responsibilities tend to while away their days "as pleasantly as possible."
And so, in Europe, one sees a diminishing work ethic, catastrophically declining birth rates, a dwindling sense of nation and community, and empty churches.
I would add this: Such a society is no match for the challenge of radical Islam, a supremacist and aggressive political/religious movement with ironclad convictions about every aspect of life, and adherents willing — in many cases eager — to kill and die in pursuit of their vision.
Murray has not explored the national security implications of Europeanization but, coincidently, John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, addresses precisely that topic in a new essay in Commentary magazine. He notes in particular that "foreign-policy eminences here and abroad, including former Secretaries of State of both parties as well as defense officials from the Clinton and first Bush administrations" are now advocating to Obama that the United States emulate "the European Union as the new model."
Such an approach would require that Washington achieve "transnational consensus" for its foreign policies. It would mean replacing the traditional American concept of sovereignty — U.S. citizens governing themselves within the framework of the U.S. Constitution — with "responsible sovereignty," a euphemism for ceding sovereignty to the United Nations in the interest of building a "cooperative international order" and, in time, "global governance."
Bolton argues that following this course would make America weaker while strengthening "international organizations, which have, time and again, proved inefficient and ineffective."
More fundamentally, this would mark a historic break with "the understanding of the U.S. Constitution, which locates the basis of its legitimacy in ‘we the people,’ who constitute the sovereign authority of the nation."
Emulating the experiment underway in Europe, in which nations "share" sovereignty even with non-citizens, Bolton adds, "by definition will diminish the sovereign power of the American people over their government and their own lives, the very purpose for which the Constitution was written. This is something Americans have been reluctant to do."
But that’s the direction we now appear to be heading. Bolton contends only "concerted action" can prevent it. The possibility that "irreversible damage will be done to the American project over the next few years is real," Murray warns.
"The drift toward the European model … is going to be stopped only when we are all talking again about why America is exceptional, and why it is so important that America remain exceptional. That requires once again seeing the American project for what it is: a different way for people to live together, unique among the nations of the Earth, and immeasurably precious."
Do a sufficient number of Americans still believe that? More to the point, are we willing to fight for it? There may be no questions of greater consequence asked and answered over the years ahead.
(Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism. E-mail him at cliff(at)defenddemocracy.org)