"He even recommended to his wife that they draft a constitution for their marriage. Let's write down the basic rules, he suggested; 'then we can make bylaws at our leisure as they become necessary.' It was an early warning sign, a hint that perhaps the earnest young rationalizer did not understand that there were spheres where abstract principles didn't get you very far, where reason could never be king."
Professor Obama, who will seek re-election on the 100th anniversary of Wilson's 1912 election, understands, which makes him melancholy. Speaking to Katie Couric on Feb. 7, Obama said:
"I would have loved nothing better than to simply come up with some very elegant, academically approved approach to health care, and didn't have any kinds of legislative fingerprints on it, and just go ahead and have that passed. But that's not how it works in our democracy. Unfortunately, what we end up having to do is to do a lot of negotiations with a lot of different people."
Note his aesthetic criterion of elegance, by which he probably means sublime complexity. During the yearlong health care debate, Republicans such as Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee have consistently cautioned against the conceit that government is good at "comprehensive" solutions to the complex problems of a continental nation. Obama has consistently argued, in effect, that the health care system is like a Calder mobile -- touch it here and things will jiggle here, there and everywhere. Because everything is connected to everything else, merely piecemeal change is impossible.
So note also Obama's yearning for something "academically approved" rather than something resulting from "a lot of negotiations with a lot of different people," aka politics. Here, too, Obama is in the spirit of the U.S. president who first was president of the American Political Science Association.
Wilson was the first president to criticize the Founding Fathers. He faulted them for designing a government too susceptible to factions that impede disinterested experts from getting on with government undistracted. Like Princeton's former president, Obama's grievance is with the greatest Princetonian, the "father of the Constitution," James Madison, class of 1771.
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