CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Four years ago, Barack Obama was America's Rorschach test upon whom voters could project their disparate yearnings.
To govern, however, is to choose, and now his choices have clarified him.
He is a conviction politician determined to complete the progressive project of emancipating government from the Founders' constraining premises, a project Woodrow Wilson embarked on 100 Novembers ago.
As such, Obama has earned what he now receives, the tribute of a serious intellectual exegesis by a distinguished political philosopher.
In "I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism," Charles Kesler of Claremont McKenna College rightly says Obama is "playing a long, high-stakes game."
Concerning the stakes, Obama practices prudent reticence, not specifying America's displeasing features that are fundamental. Shortly before the 2008 election, he said only: "We are five days away from fundamentally transforming" America.
Tonight, consider Obama's acceptance speech in the context that Kesler gives it in the American political tradition.
Progress, as progressives understand it, means advancing away from, up from, something. But from what?
From the Constitution's constricting anachronisms.
In 1912, Wilson said, "The history of liberty is the history of the limitation of governmental power."
But as Kesler notes, Wilson never said the future of liberty consisted of such limitation.
Instead, he said, "every means . . . by which society may be perfected through the instrumentality of government" should be used so that "individual rights can be fitly adjusted and harmonized with public duties."
Rights "adjusted and harmonized" by government necessarily are defined and apportioned by it.
Wilson, the first transformative progressive, called this the "New Freedom." The old kind was the Founders' kind — government existing to "secure" natural rights (see the Declaration) that pre-exist government.
Wilson thought this had become an impediment to progress. The pedigree of Obama's thought runs straight to Wilson.
And through the second transformative progressive, Franklin Roosevelt, who counseled against the Founders' sober practicality and fear of government power:
"We are beginning to wipe out the line that divides the practical from the ideal" and are making government "an instrument of unimagined power" for social improvement.
The only thing we have to fear is fear of a government of unimagined power: