Obama's Graciousness Deficit
President Obama ran his campaign on "change" and he declares now at every turn just how changey he is -- on torture, the economy, the Middle East, ethics, etc.
Forget for a moment whether there is anything to the high-minded talk. That's his theme and ticket to wielding political power.
The unfortunate result of this is that he is now given to jab continually at his predecessor. Some might attribute this to the failure to realize "the campaign is over" but it is perhaps better understood as milking his change meme for all its worth. He is changing from the Bush era, he repeats ad nauseam. The result, nevertheless, is a decided lack of graciousness toward his predecessor.
Peter Robinson, former Reagan speech writer, observes of the Inaugural Address:
George W. Bush had gone to exceptional lengths to ensure a smooth transition, even making some unpopular moves -- such as asking Congress to release some $350 billion bailout funds -- to spare Obama the trouble. Obama offered Bush no more than a single, curt sentence of thanks. Then he blamed Bush for the economic crisis, denouncing his "failure to make hard choices" -- as if Bush hadn't attempted to deal with the crisis by enacting a stimulus measure of the very kind Obama himself now proposes -- and accused Bush of "protecting narrow interests." For that matter, the new president all but ignored the principal task of any inaugural address, that of reuniting the nation after the divisiveness of a campaign. Almost 60 million Americans cast their ballots for Sen. John McCain. What did Obama have to say to his opponents? "What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them." Some olive branch.
And the same smallness of spirit is showing up in rhetoric directed toward the Republicans in Congress.
At a White House meeting he throws an elbow ("I won") and chides them for supposedly following the dictates of radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh. (The Beltway Republicans are not above the latter, by the way, but their objections to the "stimulus" plan are on sound policy grounds.) Anyone who gets in his way is just opposed to "change."
Why do this? President Obama is the one whom we were told has unlimited empathy, who can bring people with differing perspectives together without recrimination. He is not hobbled by the Bush-Clinton political wars which left both sides of the political aisle exhausted and in low repute. He, of all people, had the ability to start fresh and elevate the tone in Washington.
We are seeing, I think, the unlimited hubris of a candidate enjoying sky-high poll ratings and media adoration who believes he owes his opponents only civility, but not respect. And it suggests that the need to maintain the high-wire act of "change" (without the benefit of true policy innovation) feeds the constant need to differentiate himself from -- and ultimately diminish-- his predecessor and opponents.
The danger is that he loses that rarest of presidential commodities, which is the ability to operate on a higher plane than the squabbling politicians and sniping pundits surrounding him. Indeed, by invoking Limbaugh's name he brought on not only a finely crafted response (which made a convincing case that the stimulus is a political maneuver not an economic recovery plan), but ensnared himself in exactly the sort of political bric-a-brac he wants to avoid.
It may not matter in the end because he does, after all, have the votes to pass much of his agenda. But it is being remembered and absorbed by his opponents, and even by less politically-minded onlookers. They might wonder why the new president who has the luxury to be magnanimous isn't. And when the going gets tough, or his Congressional majority narrows (as it usually does after the first mid-year election), he might need the good will of the other party.
So perhaps President Obama, who has an overabundance of confidence, can settle into his new surroundings and find ways to maintain his own standing without sniping at his opponents.
He might, for example, acknowledge that we aren't just "ending" the war or leaving Iraq to the Iraqis. We are winning, or if he prefers, "completing the mission." Those who championed the surge, not to mention the troops still fighting, would certainly notice and appreciate it. (Like it or not he's completing Bush's Iraq policy -- not departing from it.) And when he talks about changing stem cell policy -- which is so ticklish a subject he may defer to Congress -- he can leave out the dig about "restor[ing] science to its rightful place." He can just tell us what he wants to do and why he thinks it is right. And he might argue the merits of his stimulus plan rather than resort to ad hominem attacks.
In sum, President Obama is an elegant man who enjoys the goodwill of most citizens. He should not fritter away his standing nor diminish his stature by perpetuating "childish things," including a constant stream of one-upsmanship. Graciousness goes a long way in life, and in politics.
And it may come in handy some day