Yale scholar offers insights on Obama and constitutional change
In Pittsburgh speech, Akhil Reed Amar expands on his new book, 'The Law of the Land'
May 24, 2015 12:00 AM
Akhil Reed Amar, Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale Law School, at the Allegheny HYP Club.
By James P. O'Toole / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Gallup organization reported this month that President Obama’s favorable rating had crept up to 53 percent, a four-point improvement since March and its highest level since before the 2014 mid-term elections that were so damaging to his party.
Akhil Reed Amar argues that the president has at least a chance to be remembered for a more enduring and fundamental political transformation. The Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale University was in Pittsburgh last week to speak at the Yale Club of Pittsburgh’s annual dinner and to discuss his newest book, “The Law of the Land,” which examines how regionalism and geographical issues have helped shape the Constitution of a continent-wide democracy.
Mr. Amar said that, while it’s too soon to fully assess a presidency still playing itself out, Mr. Obama could be poised to join just five predecessors who were true transformational figures in American politics.
“Very few presidents in all of American history have basically turned the tide. And the ones that managed to turn the tide are generally reckoned great,” the constitutional scholar said during a conversation at the Allegheny HYP Club.
“Presidential tide-turners are presidents who, when they first are seeking the office, are basically facing headwinds. ... The dominant political regime is one that they are pushing against. And these presidents go against the tide, win re-election, hand off power to a successor, and the next era is one that their party dominates.”
The handful of presidents who have met those criteria, in Mr. Amar’s view, are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.
The 2016 presidential election represents a key question mark on whether Mr. Obama can make a claim to join that select company. If Hillary Clinton manages to win it, Mr. Obama will be able to claim that he preserved the White House for the Democrats, despite the deep losses it has suffered during his tenure at the congressional and state levels.
”Nothing succeeds like succession,” Mr. Amar said, echoing a point he made in a 2013 essay in The Atlantic.
If Mrs. Clinton — or some other Democrat — is successful in 2016, he said, longer term demographic factors make it likely that the Democrats could enjoy and extended run of success at the national level.
“That suggests why immigration reform is so big on the agenda [and] why the Republicans are going to have to execute a pivot on that issue,” he said. “They can win two or three more elections, but in the long term, demographically, they are going to have to execute a pivot, if you play the numbers out.”
But can a president who appears to have fallen so far short of his pledge to change the culture of Washington and who, despite the recent uptick in polling numbers, remains a deeply polarizing figure, make a claim to presidential greatness?
Mr. Amar’s answer is yes. He buttresses the assertion with the example of another president from Illinois, noting that Lincoln, now universally revered, was a profoundly divisive figure in his own time. He pointed out that soon after Lincoln’s assassination, congressional Democrats unanimously voted against the 14th Amendment, which extended the protections of the Bill of Rights to actions by the states, that he had championed.
Yet after Democrat Andrew Johnson served out the balance of Lincoln’s second term, regularly clashing with congressional Republicans along the way, Republican Ulysses S. Grant won the next presidential election and set the stage for decades of GOP dominance of the White House.
Mr. Amar devotes the first chapter of his new book to the 16th president. He argues that in addition to his political and military triumphs in the Civil War, Mr. Lincoln “made a series of momentous constitutional decisions that establish him as the most significant constitutional interpreter and decision maker of the past two centuries.”
The Constitution is at the core of Mr. Amar’s scholarship and writing. His assessment of the current president may put him at odds with most current Republicans. But he enthusiastically embraces the concept of American “exceptionalism” that echoes through the rhetoric of so many conservative candidates.
“The Constitution is world transformative. Before the constitution there was almost no democracy in the world .... [now] after the constitution, there’s democracy in over half the world by land mass and population,” he said. “The world needs to understand it, because it really did change the world.
By contrast, he dismisses historic moments often mentioned in the same context as the founding document.
The Magna Carta?
“Vastly overrated. ... One group of thugs meeting with another thug. It didn’t change anything.”
The French Revolution?
“It ends in a bloodbath.”
“For better or worse, I’m a proud American exceptionalist who believes the the modern world was made in America, made in the Constitution, and that the story I’m trying to tell in these books,” he continued. “Our Constitution fails — it’s called the Civil War — but in the aftermath of that, we have a new birth of freedom.”
Politics editor James P. O’Toole: email@example.com or 412-263-1562.
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.