Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Obama Victory

James Skillen


November 7, 2008

The magnitude of Barack Obama’s achievement on November 4 won’t be fathomed for months or perhaps even years. And the historic and symbolic significance of the election of the first African American to the presidency requires celebratory commentary from those far more eloquent than I.

With regard to the task of governing, one thing seems clear. Obama’s election confirms the maturation of a national political community that demands national governance.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal was a pragmatic response to the Great Depression and was followed quickly by the emergency of World War II. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs aimed to speed up the promise of civil-rights reform by means of federal funding for programs in unequal states. During both the Roosevelt and Johnson administrations, governance was still assumed to belong primarily to the states and when the federal government’s piecemeal efforts appeared not to succeed, or threatened local or corporate interests, the reaction brought Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush to Washington.

Reagan and Bush wanted to cut back wasteful federal expenditures, reaffirm governance by the states, and let the market deliver the economic and social goods people needed and wanted. The federal government would concentrate on its original constitutional mandate to defend the country and regulate interstate commerce toward the end of promoting economic growth.

Two major developments since the Great Depression have made these earlier approaches to governance inadequate. Over the past 75 years, the United States has become a national polity and is no longer primarily a federally protected collection of state polities. And second, the US has become an increasingly interdependent part of a shrinking world, no longer able to set its own course on its own terms.

The approaches to governance taken by Roosevelt and Johnson and by Reagan and Bush can no longer deal with contemporary reality. As a nationally integrated political community, the US requires coherent and accountable national governance. And as a more interdependent player in the affairs and institutions of a shrinking world, the US requires a foreign policy very different from those appropriate during World War II and the Cold War.

There is an immense problem, however, which the American people and even President-elect Obama may not be sufficiently conscious of. The US Constitution militates against the kind of national governance that the country now requires. Only the president is nationally elected and accountable to all the people. Each member of the House and Senate owes primary allegiance to local constituents, not to the national public. And because of this system, local and national interest groups have far greater influence in Congress than do the American people. Moreover, America’s economy is now tied into international markets in ways that leave a weak government in Washington even weaker. So our national polity is underserved both domestically and internationally by an out-of-date governing system.

President-elect Obama has the instincts for, and wants to bring about, a new mode of national governance that can deal with twenty-first-century realities. But he is unlikely to be able to pull this off simply by means of highly disciplined administrative efforts, persuasive rhetoric, dogged negotiations with Congress, and the recovery of international respect for America. The hindrance is built into our constitutional system, which mandates a weak federal government.

To lead our country into the future, Obama must not only try to guide Congress to major policy changes in the short term but also begin to show what it will take to reform the very structure of our republic over the long term.

— James W. Skillen, President
     Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”