President Obama took the oath of office on Tuesday, January 20, 2009. In that Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial year, Mr. Obama sought to stress his admiration for the only other president from Illinois. Millions of people watched as he placed his left hand on the Lincoln Bible and raised his right hand. Around the world, billions viewed the event on television. On the National Mall, army howitzers of the Presidential Salute Battery fired off a 21-gun salute to honor the new commander-in-chief.
It was surely a great day for all Americans. Nearly 400 years before, a single Dutch ship had brought chained Africans to Jamestown in the colony of Virginia, thus beginning centuries of slavery and oppression. President Obama was right to see the transcendent meaning in his elevation to the highest office in the land.
That is why his contempt for law is so deeply troubling. We understand that he rejects the Defense of Marriage Act and views it as unconstitutional. Still, until it is repealed, or until it is deemed by our courts--including the highest court--to be unconstitutional, he has taken an oath to “faithfully execute the office of President of the United States.” The Constitution that he swore before God to “preserve, protect, and defend” requires the president to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” Not just the laws he approves of, not merely those laws he would have voted for as a legislator, but the laws.
Lincoln taught Americans to reverence the laws. He broke with the abolitionists of his day over the hateful Fugitive Slave Act. Lincoln hated that law, too, but he said we had to obey it because the Constitution provided for it. We had to obey that law, Lincoln wrote his dearest friend, slaveholder Joshua Speed of Kentucky, even though “we crucify our feelings” in so doing. Crucify our feelings. What a phrase.
Why is it important for President Obama to obey and to enforce the law? Because reverence for the laws is one reason those army howitzers fired blanks into the chill noon air—and not at the White House. How many other republics have seen their constitutions and their liberties crushed under tank treads? Our national reverence for law and our military’s respect for civilian authority are two more of the many, many things that make America exceptional among the nations.