Editor's note: This piece was authored by Brion McClanahan.
In case you missed it, and many did, President Barack Obama gave his annual “State of the Union” address last night. All the pageantry, the pomp…the demagoguery, what’s not to watch? In light of President Obama’s promises and agenda, perhaps it would be useful to analyze his address through the lens of the founding generation. After all, they wrote and ratified the Constitution, so they should have a fair understanding about its meaning, powers, and how it should be interpreted.
Obama: “Tonight, I want to speak about how we move forward, and lay out a blueprint for an economy that’s built to last -– an economy built on American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers, and a renewal of American values.”
Founders: First and foremost, the president does not have the constitutional authority to “lay out a blueprint” for the American economy. He is not legislator-in-chief or the prime minister. He can make “recommendations” as the Constitution states, but that does not involve a legislative agenda.
Obama: “Tonight, I’m announcing the creation of a Trade Enforcement Unit that will be charged with investigating unfair trading practices in countries like China.”
Founders: Where does the Constitution give you such authority? If you want to discuss trade problems, then address that with the Chinese government and present a treaty to the Senate for approval. You do not have unilateral authority over any foreign policy issue.
Obama: “Join me in a national commitment to train 2 million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job. My administration has already lined up more companies that want to help.”
Founders: Again, Mr. Obama, where can you find the constitutional authority for such activity? There are no delegated powers in the Constitution, either for the congress or the executive to build educational partnerships. That is a state issue.
Obama: “Innovation also demands basic research. Today, the discoveries taking place in our federally financed labs and universities could lead to new treatments that kill cancer cells but leave healthy ones untouched.”
Founders: And only the federal government can provide these resources? First, they are unconstitutional. Second, the most innovative things in the history of the world were produced by private enterprise, and third the United States is broke. Do you believe with over $100 trillion in unfunded liabilities that the United States has the money to invest in what should be the purview of private enterprise?
Obama: “I’ve already sent this Congress legislation that will secure our country from the growing dangers of cyber-threats.”
Founders: You have “sent this Congress legislation”? See our first point.
Obama: “The executive branch also needs to change. Too often, it’s inefficient, outdated and remote. That’s why I’ve asked this Congress to grant me the authority to consolidate the federal bureaucracy, so that our government is leaner, quicker, and more responsive to the needs of the American people.”
Founders: This is, perhaps, the grossest distortion of the Constitution of the night. The executive branch was designed not to be the focus of the government. We assured the people of the States in 1787 and 1788 that the president would have limited power. Furthermore, congress cannot “grant you the authority” to do anything. That has to be done through the amendment process. For someone who parades around as a “Constitutional scholar” you have a limited understanding of the Constitution as ratified by the States. The president of the United States is not a dictator or king, and as Alexander Hamilton and others pointed out during the ratification process, the president has few defined powers. Hamilton actually said in Federalist No. 69 that the president has no control over “the commerce or currency” of the nation. More than anything, we feared a tyrannical executive and broke away from one in 1776.
Obama did get one thing right during his address: “On the other hand, even my Republican friends who complain the most about government spending have supported federally financed roads, and clean energy projects, and federal offices for the folks back home.” On that point, the founding generation would agree. If the insanity in Washington is to stop, if Americans are to return to low taxes, light spending, low debt, and a “general government” as the founding generation called it that handles only the general concerns of the Union of the States, than the American people need to hold both parties accountable. We need to understand the Constitution as ratified by the States in 1787 and 1788. Otherwise, we are doomed to live under a government that has shredded the Constitution and a president that believe he alone has the power to save the economy, control commerce and education, and legislate from the White House. If that is the case, our Constitution is nothing more than a scrap of paper under glass in Washington D.C.
Brion McClanahan is the author of The Founding Fathers’ Guide to the Constitution as well as The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in American history from the University of South Carolina. Born in Virginia, he attended high school in Delaware and received a B.A. in history from Salisbury University in Maryland. He lives with his wife and children near Phenix City, Alabama, just across the river from Columbus, Georgia.