It is increasingly urgent and necessary that someone in the White House, or a high figure in the Democratic Party, or, perhaps best, an ex-President remind President Obama that he is the president of the entire United States and every citizen in them. For his entire term, every president is the leader of those who voted for him and those who didn’t, those who like him and those who despise him. This is one of the toughest tests of leadership, that is, the ability to lead those who disagree with your policies and dislike your character, but it’s part of the job nonetheless.
Of course, the burden of leadership conflicts with the burden of campaigning, and it has always put a sitting president in a delicate position in the last year of his first term. He has to serve as president for all, and yet to win reelection he has to define himself against an opposition. The temptation is to attack the others and defend oneself, but the office requires that he continue to meet with foreign leaders, sign legislation, and conduct business that has little to do with the upcoming election. Something else resists campaigning, too, one that the Founders valued above all other qualities: civic virtue. To them, George Washington was its embodiment.
A person with civic virtue may be ambitious and partisan, but there is always a point at which he or she will place the good of the country ahead of the good of self or party or any other faction. For politicians with civic virtue, politics is not the end, but only a means, and civic virtue contains those means to activities that will not despoil public life or lower the character of the citizenry. For politicians (and everyone else) without civic virtue, government is just a method of material gain.
One of the elements of civic virtue, as stated above, is the capacity to lead opponents, to run for office as an incumbent but not let the campaigning undercut leadership of all. The President, then, must meet a standard higher than anyone else’s on this issue. The other party’s candidates will attack from the start. Indeed, attacks on the president begin a few hours after the inauguration, that goes with the job. But the president can’t respond in kind without alienating a good portion of the nation that he must lead. Anger at the other side will now and then slip out, an occasional vent will happen, but aggressive and personal campaigning must be restrained (at least until the last weeks before the vote happens).
Sad to say, this isn’t the case with President Obama. Since the beginning, he has shown a thin-skinned attitude toward his adversaries, an inability to sit down comfortably with the other side. One reason, I think, lies in his dearth of executive experience. Another reason lies in the idolatry that preceded his inauguration, one that was bound to collapse once the quotidian rigors of governance began.
Whatever the cause, his recent speeches have entered the demonizing phase. Here is a sample (all speeches may be found here):
“When people talk about repealing health care reform, they’re not just saying we should stop protecting women with preexisting conditions; they’re also saying we should kick about a million young women off their parent’s health care plans.” (April 6)
“So we are going to have a big, important debate in this country and I cannot wait because we have tried what they are selling. It’s not like we didn’t try it. We have tried what they’re peddling and it did not work. And we have been spending the last three years cleaning after some of that mess. And I don’t want to have to do it again.” (April 5)
“And yet, for much of the last century, we have been having the same argument with folks who keep peddling some version of trickle-down economics. They keep telling us that if we’d convert more of our investments in education and research and health care into tax cuts — especially for the wealthy — our economy will grow stronger. They keep telling us that if we’d just strip away more regulations, and let businesses pollute more and treat workers and consumers with impunity, that somehow we’d all be better off. We’re told that when the wealthy become even wealthier, and corporations are allowed to maximize their profits by whatever means necessary, it’s good for America, and that their success will automatically translate into more jobs and prosperity for everybody else. That’s the theory.” (April 3)
“But that’s what the other side wants to do. They make no secret about it. They want to go back to the days where Wall Street played by its own rules. They want to go back to the day when insurance companies could do whatever they wanted to. They want to go back to the days where — they want to continue to spend trillions of dollars on tax breaks for the wealthiest individuals in America, even if it means adding to the deficit, or gutting education, or gutting investments in clean energy, or hurting Medicare.” (March 30)
“Lately, we’ve heard a lot of politicians, a lot of folks who are running for a certain office–they shall go unnamed–they dismiss wind power. They dismiss solar power. They make jokes about biofuels. I guess they like gas-guzzlers because they’re against raising fuel standards. Imagine if these guys had been around when Columbus set sail. They’d be charter members of the Flat Earth Society. They don’t ask what we can do; they explain what we can’t do, and why we can’t do it.” (March 22)
I presume these statements speak for themselves, but it’s worth a moment to pause at some of the characterizations. Republicans aren’t politicians who are misguided, confused, or just plain wrong. They are “salesmen” and “peddlers.” They don’t believe the lowering regulations on corporations will boost employment and prosperity. They want to let corporations pollute the earth and abuse workers. They want to line the pockets of the rich and let insurance companies “do whatever they want” and leave women unprotected.
These are patently false statements, silly caricatures that rouse the base but degrade the public square. They are unseemly in the mouth of the President, whoever he is. Most of all, they demonize not only the Republican leadership but all the people who support it, for when Obama casts the opposition in this way, he demeans 40 percent of the population.
We hear much about civility in public life, and many colleges now insert civility discussions into the curriculum. More and more, President Obama’s speeches are worth studying as examples of incivility, of precisely what a president should not do this far out from the election. Cheap and puerile, they offer the guilty pleasures of raillery, a moment’s chuckle and a lengthening contempt for people of different views. Such rhetoric coming out of the president’s mouth poisons civic life, for every time he throws a cynical and insulting characterization to the audience, he licenses the blowhard talking head, the obnoxious columnist, and hordes of lesser incumbent politicians in their own campaigns to do the same.