Apparently, the media were so thoroughly consumed with the question of whether or not Obama told good jokes at the White House Correspondents Dinner that they relegated the story to the back pages.
Perhaps it made sense for the president to speak like a professor-- detached and diffident-- when speaking at a university, but there was nothing in his speech that showed the least glimmer of awareness that he himself was leading the decline of American civility.
Public discourse is so filled with exhortations to take responsibility that we seem to have forgotten what it means. A president who is the leader of a nation and of a political party that is ruling Washington should not be pretending to be above the fray. In point of fact, Obama is the fray. Failing to note his own contribution to the coarsening of our discourse makes his plaint into little more than empty politicking and blame shifting.
You know as well as I do that Obama only cares about criticism that is directed against him. You know as well as I do that when he declares, with all of the faux nobility as his disposal, that: "You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it" he is not referring to the vicious, brutal, and rhetorically violent attacks against George Bush.
Obama's fine sentiments, his words of wisdom, can only ring hollow when compared with his record. When he says: "The problem is that this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door on the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation."
But who was it who refused to compromise about his health care reform initiative? Who was it who tried to boycott a major news channel? Why was it who attacked talk show hosts and opposition figures by name? Who was it who refused to negotiate with Republicans on any of his major initiatives? And who was it who breached decorum by attacking the assembled members of the Supreme Court during his State of the Union message?
Of course, you know all of this, but either Obama does not know, or else he believes that his dulcet tones will hypnotize the nation into giving him a pass. For him to pretend to be the last beacon of civility among the Tea Party rabble is rich, indeed.
As you know, Obama is directing his attention to those who might vote against him. He has had nothing to say about the violence of illegal immigrants or their supporters whose rallies over the past week week have made the Tea Party rallies look like... tea parties. And not a word for those serious commentators who have spent the week denouncing Arizona as a throwback to Nazi Germany. Does this promote civil debate and enhance our deliberative democracy?
When Obama connects patriotic dissent with violence, he is laying down a predicate that might justify shutting down voices that criticize him. When he criticizes his critics because their words: "... can send signals to the most extreme elements of our society that perhaps violence is a justifiable response" he is telling the talk radio hosts that he will hold them to account the first time he can find an instance of right wing violence.
As for the possibility that his own vilifying these same talk show hosts might provoke violence... he has nothing to say.
Obama has not been the voice of moderation or compromise. He has not led by example on this score> If he wants to instill these admirable values in the American body politic he can exert the greatest influence for good by walking the talk.
As I mentioned in a previous post (link here), and and as many others have noted, Obama likes to ridicule his opponents, reducing their arguments to caricature, and playing it for laughs. If we were being charitable, we might say that he does not know that impugning someone's character by making a mockery of their ideas used to be fighting words. Whether he knows it or not, his approach to differences of opinion is neither civil, deliberative, nor moderate.
For an example, we do not have to look much further than his speech to the newly minted U. of Michigan graduates.
Was Obama trying to advance the cause of deliberative debate when he caricatured those who opposed his health care reform bill. Rather than address the substantive criticisms offered by serious political thinkers, Obama picked out a slogan scrawled on a poster held by someone who was demonstrating against him. The poster read: Keep Your Government Hands Out Of My Medicare." Obama offered his own exegesis: "Keep Government Out Of My Government-run Health Care Plan."
The audience laughed. Obama had allowed them to feel superior to the poor rubes that rally around such slogans.
And yet, the protester did have a salient point, point that Obama was refusing to address. That was, that his health care plan is going to reduce Medicare reimbursement rates and thus effect that availability of health care for senior citizens. It is not a point to be mocked, but a point to be addressed.
And besides, another contentious aspect of Obama's health care plan, the elimination of most Medicare Advantage plans, is also an important issue. Medicare Advantage plans are not "government run;" they are administered by private insurance companies. That is why Obama had no problem with shutting them down. To Obama, once private enterprise is involved, someone is making a profit, and he simply could not have that. Saying that Obama is a champion of free market capitalism is a joke.
So, the protester had a point. It was inelegantly expressed. It could have been debated by the president and his political opponents. Obama chose not to do so.
This was hardly Obama's only rhetorical slight of hand. Wanting to appear bipartisan Obama pointed out that people from both sides of the political aisle had engaged in demonizations and vilifications, and that we should all spend some time reading the opinions of those with whom we disagree.
Sounds good, doesn't it?
At first glance, it is unimpeachable. Unfortunately, it seems to be another one of those, everyone does it, arguments, the kind that is used to justify harsh rhetoric and personal attacks on the grounds that everyone else is doing it, so how can you criticize me for doing it.
If Obama had wanted to take full responsibility and advance the cause of civil discourse, he would have directed his attention at the ugly rhetoric that has flowed from his political party, and from him, and apologized for it. When he declared that this kind of rhetoric was endemic to American politics, he was, effectively, giving himself a free pass.