Sunday, November 04, 2012

The president as champion of the people

I listened last night to a speech that Obama gave in Bristow, Virginia yesterday (Nov. 3), and it included a riff that was new to me. I've found it in a transcript of a speech delivered on the same day, in Dubuque,Iowa. It offers a singular - -and in a sense, conservative -- view of the president's role in our government:
See, the folks at the very top in this country, they don't need a champion in Washington. They'll always have a seat at the table. They'll always have access. They'll always have influence. That's the way things are.

The people who need a champion are you the Americans whose letters I read late at night after I'm done with my work in the office; the men and women I meet on the campaign trail every day; the folks I met that first summer when I was traveling around Iowa, and nobody could pronounce my name.

The laid-off furniture worker who suddenly has to retrain at the age of 55 for a new career, trying to figure out how to pay for community college -- she needs a champion. The restaurant owner who's got some great food but needs a loan to expand, and the bank turned him down -- he needs a champion. (Applause.) The cooks and the waiters and the cleaning staff at a hotel, trying to save enough to buy a first home or send their kids to college -- they need a champion.

The autoworker who never thought he'd be back on the job, but then suddenly things start picking up and he got recalled, and now he's back on the line building a great car, and filled with pride and dignity because that job is not just about a paycheck, that's about knowing that you're contributing to something that's important, that you're helping the economy grow, that you're building your community - he needs a champion.

All the firefighters and police officers and first responders who sacrifice so much to help their communities -- they need a champion. And that teacher who's in an overcrowded classroom, outdated schoolbooks, having to dig into her own pocket to buy school supplies, sometimes just feeling discouraged but then knowing that every day there might be just that one kid that she's touching that day -- she needs a champion.

All those kids in inner cities and small farm towns, the rolling hills of Virginia, the valleys of Ohio, right here in Dubuque -- kids dreaming of becoming scientists or doctors, or engineers or entrepreneurs, following the family tradition of farming the land, maybe becoming a diplomat, maybe becoming a President -- -- starting a business -- they need champions in Washington, because they don't have lobbyists. The future will never have as many lobbyists as the protectors of the status quo, but it's the dreams of those children that are our saving grace. They're the ones who will carry forward the vision of America that makes us so special.
Hearing the president cast himself as champion as those who can't buy influence sent me looking for an excellent book that I unfortunately can't find:  a biography of Samuel Johnson by Jackson Bate. Johnson was an absolutist of sorts: he believed that the king should be above the law, and that the sovereignty of the state was in a sense absolute, until it wasn't:
Sir, you are to consider, that in our constitution, according to its true principles, the King is the head, he is supreme: he is above everything, and there is no power by which he can be tried. Therefore, it is, Sir, that we hold the King can do no wrong; that whatever may happen to be wrong in government may not be above our reach, by being ascribed to Majesty. Redress is always to be had against oppression, by punishing the immediate agents. The King, though he should command, cannot force a Judge to condemn a man unjustly; therefore it is the Judge whom we prosecute and punish. Political institutions are formed upon the consideration of what will frequently tend to the good of the whole, although now and then exceptions may occur. Thus it is better in general that a nation should have a supreme legislative power, although it may at times be abused. And then, Sir, there is this consideration, that if the abuse be numerous, Nature will rise up, and claiming her original rights, overturn a corrupt political system" (from Boswell's Life of Johnson).
What I recall from Bates' analysis of Johnson's thinking, rather than from any text I can locate, is that Johnson considered the king's authority a bulwark against special interests, rather than an apotheosis of them.  That is, he looked to the sovereign to check the greed and will to power of all other elites under his authority: above the law, he was also to be above personal investment in the interests of any particular class or group to the detriment of the common good. 

Regardless of whether I have Johnson quite right here -- I've rooted around without finding anything directly to the point -- this view of kingship is a very old one, articulated by many late medieval writers exhorting kings to justice.  So there is a something a tad monarchical in this populist concept of the presidency. It's a way of running against Congress, of suggesting that Congress is unavoidably at least partially in pawn to lobbyist pressure, but the president of all the people has the potential to rise above it. It jibes with the "we can't wait" phase of Obama's presidency.


  1. Damn - I wish he'd been giving this speech all year. I've heard this message between the lines of many Obama speeches and interviews, and Biden's too. Spelling it out sure helps!

    Vote, call, pray, let's get it done.

  2. Yes, all of the above. Let's do it for our country! Obama 2012.

  3. King Obama? Great.