The other day he went after the three oil company executives who testified before congress about the massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The president was furious because each of them blamed the other for the mess. Mr. Obama called it a “ridiculous spectacle” then said, “I will not tolerate any more finger-pointing.”
Pretty funny, huh? The president who has done more finger-pointing since he took the oath of office than all the presidents from George Washington right on through George Bush put together, doesn’t like finger-pointing. President Obama can’t go ten minutes without blaming W for something. Either it’s the recession – Bush’s fault. Or the massive federal deficit – Bush’s fault. Or America’s tarnished reputation abroad – Bush’s fault. He even blamed George Bush for the election of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts.
“The same thing that swept Scott Brown into office swept me into office,” Obama told an interviewer. “People are angry, and they’re frustrated. Not just because of what’s happened in the last year or two years, but what’s happened over the last eight years.”
So what lesson should we learn from this, class? If you said, “Finger-pointing is okay if you’re the Finger-Pointer-in-Chief, but not okay if you work for the big, bad, oil companies,” give yourself a gold star.
Then there’s the president’s promise that his administration would be the most transparent we’ve ever had. Except, apparently, when transparency is not convenient. The president isn’t letting any reporters near his Supreme Court nominee, Elena Kagan. Fair enough. No president wants his nominee chit-chatting with reporters. A small slip can mean big problems.
But this White House won’t let reporters anywhere near anyone in Kagan’s family. A New York Times reporter got the green light to sit in on a constitutional law class Kagan’s brother was teaching at a high school in Manhattan. But when Obama’s White House got the news they pulled the plug.
And a couple of days after the Times interviewed one of Kagan’s cousins, a woman who lives in Minneapolis, the reporter phoned again to ask a few more questions. But this time, Kagan’s cousin clammed up. She refused to talk. Asked if the White House had gotten to her, the cousin said, “Nope,” and hung up the phone.
Seems like Mr. Obama believes in transparency. Until he doesn’t.
And recently the president has been talking about the need for civility in our national conversation. Speaking to graduating students at the University of Michigan, Mr. Obama said, “The… way to keep our democracy healthy is to maintain a basic level of civility in our public debate…. we cannot expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it.”
Too bad the president doesn’t take his own advice. As Peter Wehner, who worked in President George W. Bush’s White House, put it in a piece for the Commentary magazine Web site: “Obama himself has engaged in ad hominem attacks to a degree that is unusual for a president. He constantly impugns the motives of those who have policy disagreements with him. His critics are greedy, venal, irresponsible, demagogic, cynical, bought and paid for, spreaders of misinformation, distorters of truth.”
And when Nancy Pelosi was calling tea party protestors every name in the book, President Obama said nothing about the need for civility. When Harry Reid said that Americans who showed up at town-hall meetings were “evil-mongers,” again we got nothing about civility from the president. When Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson emerged from obscurity long enough to go play the fool on camera, declaring that, “the Republicans want you to die quickly if you get sick…. This is what the Republicans want you to do” – even then President Obama could not bring himself to call off the dogs. Apparently, the president who longs for a more civil national conversation had no interest in stopping any of that incivility.
But still the president is on to something. Most of us are for civility in our culture. Most of us can do without the non-stop angry rhetoric. And shouldn’t men and women in public office avoid attributing the worst motives to political opponents? Politicians should take the president’s words to heart. So should the president.