Yes, we can, but should we?

Published 9:27 pm Tuesday, March 31, 2009

For months leading up to November’s presidential election, Americans heard the rallying cry of Barack Obama’s campaign. “Yes, we can!” resonated with groups of people who felt they had been shut out of the political process and became the catchphrase of post-election marketing campaigns hawking everything from T-shirts to wristwatches.

This week, as President Obama used his position in the Oval Office to broker change in the auto industry, “Yes, we can!” took on a new, constitutionally frightening meaning. “Yes, we can!” force the chief executive officer of General Motors to resign. “Yes, we can!” preside over the shotgun marriage of Chrysler and the Italian automaker Fiat.

But can we? And more to the point, should we?

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Obama’s use of the big stick that comes with his office marks an unprecedented intrusion of government into the world of American business. The president argues that the intervention is necessary in light of the billions of dollars the auto industry is seeking in taxpayer bailout money, and there is an obvious logic to that conclusion.

Still, a careful reading of the Constitution leaves one wondering just where this power comes from. Does the Commerce Clause, which gives Congress (not the president) the power “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes,” really mean that the federal government should have power over and above that of a corporation’s stockholders or board of directors?

If we allow government to have such power, where will it stop? Should the president intervene when a company’s balance sheet begins to move into the red? What if stockholders decide they have confidence that the CEO of a troubled company will turn things around in the next quarter or the next year? Should the president intervene anyway?

Even in the face of increasingly worrisome economic news during the past few months, there have been those who consistently have warned against the dangerously anti-constitutional bailouts and stimulus packages. The president’s actions may not represent the worst of their fears, but they surely take a huge step down a path that America’s Founding Fathers hoped to avoid.

Yes, we can? No, we shouldn’t have.