Obama walks back another

There are two things truly odd about our president.

The first is that he allows all sorts of undisciplined talk by his subordinates. For a man reputed to be so disciplined and one who never takes the bait to spontaneously say something foolish, it is odd that he allows the kind of personal, undisciplined yakking that Robert Gibbs and Rahm Emanuel have become famous for. Gibbs is of course a self-important buffoon who doesn’t seem to have any core values and has a need, unjustified by any level of talent, for self-promotion. This seems a peculiarly bad trait for a press spokesman. Emanuel has always had loose lips, but seems to have quieted down recently, either because he’s been spoken to or because he’s about to let loose another stream of idiocy. There are other examples of speaking before thinking: recently Tom Vilsack and Stanley McChrystal, not just this year but at the beginning of the Afghan review process last year. There are of course exceptions. Both Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates are consummate professionals. But their professionalism developed over many years and has nothing to do with the management style of this White House. It is possible that both Gibbs and Emmanuel are floating balloons that Obama wants tested, but they are so inartfully done that it’s hard to believe there is some plan.

The second odd feature of this White House is the penchant of the President to take a belated stand on some issue and then walk it back when he meets the least opposition. Classic examples are Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell review, the Public Option in the health insurance reform debate, and immigration reform. The latest clarification en arrière came after his pro-religious freedom speech before Muslim leaders where he took, it seemed, a principled stand on the building of the mosque in downtown Manhattan. He had remained silent for so long that everyone thought he had concluded that it was a political hot potato. Not so, he says. He wanted to let the local authorities work out the zoning issues. So he gives a ringing endorsement to American Values before the foreigners, and the next day the wild dogs of the hard right come after him. The Republic Party has no real proposals on any front, so they use every opportunity to latch onto unthinking passion. It’s what they do. And everyone knows it’s what they do. So what does the President do? Barely after anyone had time to read the few glowing comments about his courage and dignity, he walks it back. “I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there,” Mr. Obama said. “I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.”

But isn’t the “wisdom” exactly how the right wing flame throwers are framing the issue? Don’t they all preface their remarks with the mandatory, Everyone has the right to build a church or mosque and we’re not anti-Muslim? So what exactly were the remarks intended to accomplish? Wasn’t he prepared to unmask what the opponents of the mosque are really saying? If not, why belatedly get involved?

Is it that he just feels more comfortable in settings (like with heads of state) where politeness and etiquette prevent contradiction? Or does he just not like the rough-and-tumble of domestic politics.

All of this would be a minor matter if the right wing of this country weren’t skilled in taking something that has no bearing on real issues and making it the only story for a whole week. The fact is, unless the president were going to make a stand and combat the abusive language and faux concern that the conservative spokesmen use, he is better off not even raising the subject. Otherwise, he has to continue harping on it and splicing hairs or look like he’s backing down. Since he has done this so often on real issues (the public option is a particularly glowing example), one would think he would be able to generalize at this point.  Or maybe he thinks that if he unleashes Gibbs and Emanuel to sputter conservative talking points the conservative national media will be taken off the scent.

  1. March 14th, 2011

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