Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Memo to the President

Today's memo is about leadership, about maintaining the dignity of one's office, and commanding respect.

On this score, President Obama is a work in progress.

My advice, as follows:

Do not attack talk show hosts by name. A president should debate the leaders of the political opposition; he should negotiate with foreign heads of states; and he should speak for the nation in time of crisis.

His stature is compromised when he gets down and dirty with Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. By attacking talk show hosts he diminishes himself and his office, while at the same time elevating them.

The president speaks for the nation; he is the commander in chief and the leader of the free world. His words are marked around the world as government policy.

Rush Limbaugh speaks for himself. He does not represent a political party. He does not have a vote in Congress.

Barack Obama is at the top of the world status hierarchy. Rush Limbaugh is not even close.

Second point: when you are President of the United States you have nothing to say about snow days and school closings in the Washington school district. If you call out a school administrator you are telling the world that you do not know who you are.

For those who missed the story, yesterday President Obama mocked the officials who closed the Washington schools because the only reason was: "Some ice?" He then suggested that people in Chicago were tough enough to deal with such inclemency, adding: "when it comes to cold weather, folks in Washington don't seem to be able to handle things."

The result of this macho posturing: you get ridiculed in the Washington Post. Link here.

A third error: the now famous remark to a Republican Congressman: "I won."

This statement implies that perhaps Rep. Cantor did not know who won the election. Or that he needed to be reminded that his party lost. or that Republicans should show more deference to the new president.

The problem is: any of these would be disrespectful.

The best way to command respect is to show respect. If you respond to alternate policy proposals with: "I won", you are saying that you do not need to pay attention to them. It is not, as we say, a good way to get Republican votes.

On the plus side of the ledger was Obama's dinner with conservative pundits at George Will's house. Participating in this social ritual was a gesture of respect, even of benevolence. It might not have changed minds, but it was presidential.

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