Senator Jim DeMint: 'We the People' vs. 'I Won'

By Sen. Jim DeMint

It is too early to draw conclusions about President Obama and his administration. But so far, nothing so encapsulates the president's approach to executive leadership than his famous rebuke to stimulus critics: "I won."

After four months of proposals, decisions, and public statements, it seems the president believes that the 2008 election -- or more to the point, his election -- represents a fundamental break from the previous 232 years of our history. It's as if he believes his victory in November was less like the election of previous presidents and more like 1789, when we ratified a new constitution.

In 2001, when Obama called the U.S. Constitution "a charter of negative liberties," he didn't mean it as a compliment. "It says what the states can't do to you, says what the federal government can't do to you. But it doesn't say what the federal government or the state government must do on your behalf."

Obama was wrong on that last point. Article IV of the Constitution lays out in very specific terms exactly what the federal government and state government "must do on your behalf": for instance, the federal government must protect the states from foreign invasion or violent insurrection.

What President Obama meant is not that the Constitution fails to mandate government action, but that it fails to mandate enough, to satisfy his gargantuan ambitions. And so he daily goes about his business of rewriting America's social contract, not by amending the Constitution, but by ignoring it all together.

Aside from his constitutional powers, Obama is now also the operational CEO of General Motors, Chrysler, the American International Group (AIG), Citi Group, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and he wields un-challengeable influence over more than 500 financial institutions that have received federal bailout funds.

But presidents don't have powers aside from the Constitution.

What this president is doing with the automotive, insurance, banking, and mortgage lending industries is extra-constitutional and dangerous -- dangerous specifically because it is extra-constitutional.

Right now, liberals may cheer at the corporate takeovers President Obama has engineered, but only because they agree with his politics. They like the idea of the government forcing Detroit to make green cars, regardless of their profitability. They like the proposed takeovers of the student loan and health care industries. They like the idea of the treasury secretary divvying out $700 billion to whomever he pleases without congressional appropriation. They like these things now because they like and trust the current president and his appointees.

But what happens when Obama leaves office? Do liberals really want a conservative Republican in charge of Wall Street and Detroit, to be the nation's loan officer for college tuition or home mortgages? What is to stop a future administration from taking over troubled newspapers, movie studios, or television networks, and operating them according to its partisan ends?

The Constitution, that's what. Or at least, that's what should. But all that protects the Constitution is the oath we swear to it. After decades of manipulation and mischief, we are getting a preview of what a post-constitutional government would look like: the Supreme Court makes policy, the White House takes over industries, the Treasury Department and IMF appropriate taxpayers dollars, and elected representatives divest their powers to unelected judges and bureaucrats. The dangers of our experiment in extra-constitutional politics are nearing a critical mass.

Which is why President Obama's nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court is not just about the nominee. It is about Obama and his expansive notion of his own power. The qualities he commended in Sotomayor -- empathy, life experience, the common touch, and compassion -- are admirable, and her personal story is inspiring.

But they have nothing to do with constitutional law. They have nothing to do with the Constitution's enumerated or reserved powers, or the oath federal judges swear to "administer justice without respect to persons."

This looming nomination fight will not be between Judge Sotomayor and the Senate, but between the limited powers in the Constitution and limitless ambitions of the Obama Administration. The two cannot be reconciled. Either the language of the Constitution means what the American people thought it meant when it was ratified, or it means whatever this president -- or the next -- would like it to mean.

It is the difference between the Rule of Law and the Rule of Men, between the primacy of the Constitution and the primacy of empathy. It is, in short, the difference between being governed and being ruled, between "We the people" and "I won."

U.S. Senator Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina) is a member of the Senate Banking Committee and chairman of the Senate Steering Committee, a caucus of conservative senators.

Former South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint is president of The Heritage Foundation.