Charles Krauthammer today has one of the most succinct and coherent critiques of Barack Obama's political philosophy I have read. He argues that Obama believes that success is not so much a function of individual effort as it is enabled by the collective efforts of the state and social solidarity. In other words, dissecting some recent, brief and often quoted remarks by the president in which he said that behind most American success stories is a government investment in infrastructure and education, Krauthammer sees a dangerous misunderstanding of the individual drive and spirit that truly accounts for American exceptionalism.
I don't agree with his analysis of Obama; as I have said before, I believe the president accepts the centrality of the private sector, and his disagreements with most Republicans are more at the margins. Obama believes more in the importance of government investment to spur private investment and that government needs to be a strong referee of the free market.
But what interests me more about Krauthammer's column is not the critique of Obama, but his Tocquevillian vision of America as a land of rugged individuals, buoyed not by government but by their own wits and their ties to family, church and community.
This is the ideal America that so many of my Republican friends long for, and it is at the root of their disgust with Obama. The president, in their mind, fundamentally doesn't understand the American spirit and is sapping it with the coddling hands of big government.
There is no doubt of the appeal of Krauthammer's thinking. Making it on your own is one of America's most powerful character traits, and, thankfully it still happens. More people in the world will still pay any price, bear any burden to come to the United States to succeed. And they don't come here because we have the best government programs, they come here because they have the best chance to make a better life.
We have strayed far from the America that Tocqueville celebrated and for which conservatives yearn. But it is not only some individuals who have lost initiative and drive and learned to depend on government; many of our businesses have become masters of gaming government for their shareholders' benefit.
How far would conservatives go to remove the safety nets that help cushion the deprivations of individuals and the props that support the success of business? Many Republicans, like Mitt Romney, have no problem shredding the social safety net but say not a peep about corporate welfare. The obstacles to Mr. Krauthammer's vision are far stronger than Barack Obama, and Romney will not move us closer to utopia either.