Editor's note: This piece was co-authored by Matthew Parks.
“Forward,” says the reelection campaign of President Obama. It’s a natural slogan for a president with few concrete results. Why would he want anyone looking back, especially with his own mediocre record in plain view in the rear-view mirror? When Obama asks us to look back at all, it is to skip over his first term and to focus on the “failed” policies of the Bush presidency or to suggest that the Republican Party’s agenda is a century behind the times. But if Obama and the Democrats want to succeed – not just at getting elected, but at governing – they should indeed look back, two centuries back, to their party’s first president, Andrew Jackson. Backward is the real way forward for Obama Democrats.
Jackson, by going to war against political favoritism and crony capitalism, provided an enduring legacy for the Democratic Party, but one the party’s current leaders are squandering. In the summer of 1832, Congress approved a bill to re-charter the Bank of the United States, the exclusive depository of federal funds. On July 10, President Jackson vetoed it, with an extended message detailing his objections. His principal complaint was that it provided special benefits to the wealthy and well-connected at the expense of the “humble members of society.”
Jackson argued that a government-created banking monopoly granted an unmerited boon to those with sufficient wealth and access to claim it. This was no longer “equal protection,” ensuring to each the results of his “natural and just advantages,” but an extra prize the common citizen would have “neither the time nor the means” to pursue.
At least since the Progressive movement colonized the Democratic Party a century ago, it has been unclear whether Democrats any longer recognize the existence of “advantages” that are both “natural” and “just.” Jackson’s alternative to political special-pleading was even-handed justice: “In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law.”
Progressive Democrats, assuming that the “gifts of Heaven” have been arbitrarily (and therefore unjustly) bestowed, have labored to minimize the effects of natural differences through redistributive taxation and welfare state programs and emphasized the social element of individual success: we built that.
The difference is profound: Jackson feared that artificial government advantages would undermine the natural results of honest industry; Obama Democrats seem to fear that honest industry will undermine their favored system of artificial government advantages.
So, while President Jackson also vetoed a bill funding a public works project with only local benefits, President Obama has staked his economic recovery plan on an expansive system of (not quite) shovel-ready crony capitalism (Solyndra, Tesla, Fisker, and the rest) and deepened his party’s commitments to its favorite favor-seekers: non-profit universities with multi-billion dollar endowments, hucksters of anything “green,” Big Labor, Big Media, and, most of all, Big Government itself. Whereas Jackson minimized government spending to limit the burden on the common laborer, President Obama has established a new (health care) entitlement and expanded old ones.
The results have been very different too. President Jackson didn’t just balance the budget; in 1835, he paid off the entire national debt. President Obama, on the other hand, has added more than $40,000 to the national debt for every household in America, while unemployment has stubbornly remained above 8% and dependency on government programs reaches well into the American middle class.
The United States needs a forward-thinking party (or two) that knows from history and experience, like Jackson, that “the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes.” It needs a party to remind Republicans that protecting enterprise is different from promoting Big Business and that the President’s job is to protect the Constitution, not manage the economy. It needs Jackson’s Democrats, not Obama’s.