Too cute by half
George W. Bush had his share of flaws as president, but one of his abiding strengths was his clarity on the most important issues of the day. He was never a good communicator, but you always knew where he stood. He was resolute on protecting America and was willing to put his popularity in the cross hairs of his opponents to do so. He opposed stem-cell research because he is pro-life, and was adamant against the use of tax-payer monies to fund abortions. The Bush clarity was maddening to the left, but was a source of comfort for many in the country who knew that they didn’t have to guess on a daily basis where the president stood.
Contrast that with Barack Obama, and you are struck by the difference. As during the campaign, Obama still seeks to be all things to all people, trying to split the middle in lawyer-like fashion in order to make everyone happy. His statements on many issues have been muddled and confused, because he is apparently interested in being able to argue both sides with equal conviction. It makes for a fine lawyer. But does it make for a good president?
Daniel Henninger has an interesting take on it today in an opinion piece entitled “Harry, I have a gift”. Here’s an excerpt:
Early in the campaign, in January 2007, a New York Times reporter wrote a story about Mr. Obama’s time as president of the Harvard Law Review. It was there, the reporter noted, “he first became a political sensation.”
Here’s why: “Mr. Obama cast himself as an eager listener, sometimes giving warring classmates the impression that he agreed with all of them at once.” Also: “People had a way of hearing what they wanted in Mr. Obama’s words.”
Harvard Law Prof. Charles Ogletree told how Mr. Obama spoke on one contentious issue at the law school, and each side thought he was endorsing their view. Mr. Ogletree said: “Everyone was nodding, Oh, he agrees with me.”
The reason I have never forgotten this article is its last sentence, in which Al Gore’s former chief of staff Ron Klain, also of Harvard Law, reflects on the Obama sensation: “The interesting caveat is that is a style of leadership more effective running a law review than running a country.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in a book out next week, tells of congratulating freshman Sen. Obama on a phenomenal speech. Without a hint of conceit, Mr. Obama replied, “Harry, I have a gift.”
He does. We know from tradition, though, that when the gods bestow magic on mortals, the gift can also imperil its possessor. The first hint of potential peril in Mr. Obama’s gift arrived last week with the confusion over where the president stood on the terrorist interrogation memos and prosecution of former Bush officials. Here, as 19 years ago, many on both sides of a contentious issue who heard him speak thought Mr. Obama agreed with them.
Henninger goes on to discuss the confusion over the interrogation memos and the potential prosecutions of the memo-writers, when Rahm Emanuel said decisively “no” to prosecutions and the President said “well, maybe”. The President was, as is his want, trying to give grist to the left in his public statement, while his staff later took great pains to clarify that he “wants to move on” from this chapter and isn’t really interested in a prolonged “witch hunt”, etc. It was splitting the difference in a way that Obama likes — saying enough to appease his base but not so much that he can be pinned down to any clear position. It’s Obama’s way to use his “gift” to obfuscate and confuse, to distract people from his real intentions. He did it brilliantly during his campaign, where he appeared to be a moderate post-partisan politician who wanted to “change” Washington. The reality as we now know is quite different: a highly partisan pol who doesn’t seem strong enough to stand up to the most partisan groups in the Democratic Party.
There is a very real danger when the gift for gab become a substitute for clear thought and concise communication. Perhaps the president’s teleprompter has too much sway in this administration, taking the president on verbal forays that are too cute by half. It is bad enough when it confuses the American public. It is worse when it confuses our enemies into believing that we are weak and willing to compromise on even the most vital of national security issues.
I’d take clarity over the gift, any day.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org