We had but a clue what was coming at the time. Otherwise, we might have used stronger language.
But when President Obama recently threatened to use more “executive orders” (a nice word for decrees) to circumvent lawmakers – declaring ominously that “I’ve got a pen” – we were reminded of an editorial we wrote at The Augusta Chronicle on the eve of his first inauguration in 2009.
Schoolchildren across the nation had been encouraged to write letters to the incoming president. We were inspired to write our own letter to the president-elect, in the form of an editorial. See if you think what we wrote in January 2009 has added relevance and resonance today:
Dear Mr. President-elect,
Across the country, thousands of students are being encouraged to write letters to you about their concerns, hopes and dreams for America. That includes Augusta, where some 400 students have sent letters for you in care of the Chronicle . …
This outpouring might have happened otherwise, but we have to think the letter writers are more numerous and enthusiastic due to your newness on the world stage and the hope you engender in your words and your background. If you could read them all, you’d obviously be touched by their innocence and humanity and their worries.
Of course, school children have overblown ideas about what a president can or even should do. It’s reassuring to young minds to know someone’s in charge.
But we suspect if the students knew better — had more experience in the ways of the world, more information on the goings-on in Washington — they’d be writing quite different letters.
They may not be as familiar with the Constitution as they should be, for instance. They may want you to do things — with guns, with the economy, with tax money — that are unconstitutional. One thing you could do to help would be to encourage schools to do a better job of teaching our constitutional heritage — the limits on the government, the freedoms of the individual.
We found a particularly apt quote for the top of today’s page from George Washington: “Government is not reason. Government is not eloquence. It is force. And, like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”
Our students may be too young to grasp that. But sadly, it’s lost on many adults these days too. There will be plenty of them descending on Washington to ask you and your friends in Congress to do entirely too much (with money we don’t have). Things we should do for ourselves. We hope you’ll resist. That would bring a welcome change to Washington.
If our students were truly tuned in, they’d realize that the biggest government problem they face — the main thing the next president could and should do something about — is the national debt, now nearly $11 trillion and growing. It will be their problem, not ours. It will be today’s youths and their children who must pay it off, not us. And they’ll have to pay it off while supporting us in our old age.
If they knew all this, and the size of the burden the adults in Washington will be leaving them, their letters would be about asking you to do less for us, not more.
So we’ll just ask you for them.
Michael Ryan is editorial page editor at The Augusta (GA.) Chronicle, and executive director of the new Morris Civics Initiative, which aims to help create a renaissance of American responsibility and civics.