The president of the United States has it hard enough without needlessly wading into, and fanning, local controversies. The economy is battered by sluggish growth, high unemployment, record annual deficits, and near-unsustainable national debt. Over 50 percent of the people now disapprove of Barack Obama’s handling of these problems.
So why weigh in on hot-button issues that can only polarize people without solving anything?
Last summer, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, a scholar of African-American literature and history, got into a silly dispute with a local policeman. For some reason, President Obama, the leader of the free world, rushed to judgment and gratuitously announced that police sergeant James Crowley and the local Cambridge, Mass., police had acted “stupidly.” For relish, he added that police wrongly stereotype in general. Obama supporters wrote off the entire psycho-drama as a “teachable moment.”
Arizona recently passed a bill designed to enforce existing immigration law and stop the enormous influx of illegal aliens into the state. Various groups, including the federal government, quickly made plans to sue the state. Yet various polls indicated that 70 percent of Americans agreed with the Arizona law, and dozens of states were planning similar legislation.
Nonetheless, the president also jumped into that acrimony — well before the law went into effect. Obama and his attorney general alleged that Arizonans were promoting stereotyping, even though police were forbidden to question the immigration status of those who had not come into prior contact with law enforcement.
Most recently, Obama pontificated about the proposed mosque next to Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, in what his supporters might call a “teachable moment.” The issue is not a legal one. Both sides recognize the legal right of Muslims to build mosques anywhere that local zoning ordinances permit them. Instead, the controversy pertains to common decency, and the nature of the funding and proponents of the project.
No matter: The president instead lectured his mostly Muslim audience that America respects the rights of all religions — again, not the issue in question. A day later, in embarrassment, he backtracked a bit.
Where to start with all these teachable moments?
All these controversies involve issues addressed at the state and local level, with presidential action unnecessary. In such contentious matters, why intervene when Obama cannot do much other than polarize millions?
We have learned that President Obama has a bad habit of impugning the motives of those with whom he disagrees. In the Gates case, he rushed to condemn Crowley and the police. Arizonans were not to be seen as desperate citizens trying to enforce federal law, but instead derided as bigots who harass minorities when they go out to get ice cream. And in the mosque case, the president disingenuously implied that opponents of a Ground Zero mosque wanted to deny the legal right of Muslims to build religious centers.
Note that all three issues poll badly for the president, and belie his former image as a conciliator and healer.
Again, why does Obama go off message to sermonize about these seemingly minor things that so energize his opposition and make life difficult for his fellow Democrats?
First, off-the-cuff pontificating on extraneous issues is a lot easier than dealing with a bad economy, two wars, and heightening tensions abroad. Sermonizing is a lot different than rounding up votes in Congress, fending off reporters at press conferences, or dealing with aggressors abroad — and it can also turn our attention away from near 10 percent unemployment and a heavily indebted government.
Second, Obama has spent most of his life around academics, lawyers, journalists, and organizers. That insular culture tends to pontificate and lecture others far more than do action-oriented business people, soldiers, doctors and farmers — the doers who are few and far between in this administration.
Third, as an Ivy League–trained lawyer and former Chicago community organizer, Obama embraces an overarching race/class/gender critique of the United States; the story of America is not so much about an exceptionally independent and prosperous people, a unique Constitution or a vibrant national past in promoting global freedom, but about how the majority oppressed various groups. Clearly, these local instances of purported grievances have excited the president — and almost automatically prompt his customary but unproven declarations that the majority or establishment in each case is biased or unfair.
Obama should remember that successful presidents build bridges to solve national and international problems. They leave polarizing local controversies to divisive community organizers and partisan activists.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern. © 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.