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Mr. President, meet M. de Tocqueville

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Somewhere in one of Barack Obama's campaign speeches this election year, like a piece of barbed wire in an otherwise light and puffy soufflé of empty platitudes, was this remarkable comment:


"If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."

There are certain phrases, like this one, so memorable that they come to stand for the whole of a speech. Indeed for a whole attitude, for the whole spirit of a man and maybe of an age. For instance: "Give me liberty or give me death!" "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Or, in our own, less elevated time: "I never had sexual relations with that woman."

Yes, the president's speech also included a grudging tribute here and there to free enterprise, the entrepreneurial spirit and innovative thinkers in general, but it was clear all that was just lip service. There was no mistaking his general drift -- to the decided left.

Barack Obama's whole attitude was unmistakable to anyone game enough to plow through his long, wordy speech. Between liberty and equality, those two poles in the never ceasing tug-of-war over the meaning of America and the American dream, the president's tilt was clear. His speech was about as fair and unbalanced as Fox News--only in the opposite direction.

No wonder that single quote lit up the Internet. It inflamed the president's critics and reduced his defenders to the kind of long and tendentious explanations that don't really explain, and leave even those making them sounding defensive.

Soon enough these remarks of the president's will be offset by another of his appeals to American business to invest more, hire more workers and create more jobs. Even while he is proposing to tax businessmen more and wrap them ever more tightly in red tape. He seems completely unaware of all the contradictions he's wandered into, as if he had only been speaking, not thinking.


It was all enough to make his more appalled listeners wonder if this president understands how a free economy works. Or a free country.

Barack Obama was something of an unknown quantity when we elected him president. For many of us, it was enough to know he wasn't George W. Bush.

Now, almost four years later, Mr. Cool seems to have grown even more distant and detached. And the longer he speaks, the less we seem to know him -- or he us.

But there's no mistaking our president's tendency to dismiss the importance of the individual and celebrate the power of the collective: "We rise and fall together as one nation, and as one people, and that's the reason I'm running for president because I still believe in that idea...."

Attaway, Mr. President! Spoken like a real community organizer! But not necessarily like a president of the United States.

As a French visitor named Alexis de Tocqueville explained almost two centuries ago, after his grand tour of Jacksonian America in the 1830s, democracy in America is a perpetual balancing act between those two competing attractions, liberty and equality. There is an inverse relationship between the two. As one waxes, the other must necessarily wane. If democracy is to endure, it cannot choose to pursue only one of those goals. It must balance them. Instead, the president extolled The People, the Nation, as if we were one undifferentiated mass. One nation, one people! Ein reich, ein volk!


The president's most severe critics make the equal-but-opposite mistake of celebrating freedom and the free market above all -- without recognizing the indispensable role the state plays in making that freedom possible through the rule of law, and by assuring not just a free market but freedom of opportunity. For the unrestrained power of the individual is as great a threat to freedom as the unrestrained power of the state.

But this president doesn't seem to recognize that, in its zeal for equality, democracy must also respect liberty. Maybe he needs to read less Saul Alinsky and more Alexis de Tocqueville. For a democracy must know itself, its limits as well as its power, if it is to control itself. And there is no better primer on that complicated subject than Alexis de Tocqueville's study of "Democracy in America."

When his book first appeared in France, a reviewer unhappy with its complexity, its lack of simple answers, its balanced view, demanded to know just where its author stood: Was he for or against democracy? Was he for liberty or equality? He was for both, of course, and for preserving the always uneasy balance between the two. As he wrote in response to his critic:

"I had become aware that, in our time, the new social state that had produced and is still producing very great benefits was, however, giving birth to a number of quite dangerous tendencies. . . . My aim in writing (the) book was to point out these dreadful downward paths opening under the feet of our contemporaries, not to prove that they must be thrown back into an aristocratic state of society ... but to make these tendencies feared by painting them in vivid colors, and thus to secure the effort of mind and will which alone can combat them -- to teach democracy to know itself, and thereby to direct itself and contain itself."


Mr. President, meet M. de Tocqueville. You might learn a thing or, in a nation of 313 million free-spirited, free-minded individuals, three hundred and thirteen million of them.

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