Politics & Policy

Obama’s Unofficial Slogan: ‘No, You’re Wrong.’

Whatever happened to his 'pang of shame'?

As Barack Obama’s campaign becomes defined by a series of embarrassments — his assessment of what small-town residents cling to, a mentor who believes the government created HIV, a friend of 20 years who takes to the pulpit and demands whites give up 401(k) accounts to atone for their ancestor’s racist sins, a wife who pledges to take away some people’s pie and give it to others, an associate who expresses no regret over planting a bomb in a Pentagon women’s bathroom, etc. — it seems mind-boggling that this candidate was once promoted as a healer, a unifier, and a groundbreaking, post-partisan leader.

But back then, not terribly long ago, it did seem like Obama could, at the very least, promote a tone of mutual respect, decency, and trust.

Perhaps one of the best examples of this came shortly after he was elected to the Senate. In 2005, he wrote his second book, The Audacity of Hope, and described an e-mail from a doctor at the University of Chicago Medical School. The message expressed how the campaign’s website made it impossible for the doctor, a pro-life Christian, to support Obama:

The reason the doctor was considering voting for my opponent was not my position on abortion as such. Rather, he had read an entry that my campaign had posted on my website, suggesting that I would fight “right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose.” He went on to write:

“Whatever your convictions, if you truly believe that those who oppose abortion are all ideologues driven by perverse desires to inflict suffering on women, then you, in my judgment, are not fair-minded. … I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.”

I checked my website and found the offending words. They were not my own; my staff had posted them to summarize my pro-choice position during the Democratic primary, at a time when some of my opponents were questioning my commitment to protect Roe v. Wade. Within the bubble of Democratic Party politics, this was standard boilerplate, designed to fire up the base. The notion of engaging the other side on the issue was pointless, the argument went; any ambiguity on the issue implied weakness.

Rereading the doctor’s letter, though, I felt a pang of shame.

Cynics will look at this and see only an early example of Obama’s rogue staffers, who seem to misstate his beliefs with bizarre frequency. But an abortion-rights-supporting politician expressing “a pang of shame” for the way his campaign had characterized pro-lifers struck a profoundly decent chord. The candidate had the language changed and responded to the doctor, thanking him. Obama seemed to recognize that he set the tone for his campaign, that the buck stopped with him, and that he had to accept a certain level of responsibility for an unfair and harsh portrayal of the opposition. The abortion debate will probably never see consensus, but civility would indeed be a major step.

And in a political culture marked by grandiose promises, outsized egos, evasions of responsibilities, and “I’m sorry if you were offended” apologies, there was something refreshing and honorable about an elected official who came out and said, “I was wrong” — and who could even express shame in a world that had seemed to become shameless.

But since the campaign truly began, that fundamentally decent vibe of “while I’m not solely to blame, I must acknowledge my own responsibility” has evaporated. As he finds himself in an increasingly tough primary fight and facing a tougher general-election foe than he expected, the candidate demonstrates a different approach. Now, when Obama is confronted with politically uncomfortable facts or questions, his first instinct is to assert that the questioner is wrong.

When a reporter for the ABC affiliate in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, asked Obama where his flag pin was, Obama’s answer inadvertently triggered a recurring issue on the campaign trail.

Had Obama said, “Yes, I forgot,” or “it’s still pinned to yesterday’s suit,” the issue never would have taken root. He could also have avoided the problem by saying he demonstrates his patriotism by his actions. Instead, he had to insist that the pin’s absence was a deliberate choice, and offer a justification. He said he felt the flag pin had become “a substitute for I think true patriotism,” perhaps unintentionally but clearly questioning the patriotism of those who still regularly wore flag pins.

It’s not just reporters who question Obama unfairly — the public does it, too. When the Jeremiah Wright videos emerged, voters thought the sermons reflected poorly on the candidate, who had chosen the church and stayed for two decades. Obama’s initial response was to post a statement on The Huffington Post, stating, “the sermons I heard him preach always related to our obligation to love God and one another, to work on behalf of the poor, and to seek justice at every turn.” Skeptics were wrong to hold Wright’s comments against him, the candidate asserted, because he had never heard them, or anything like it.

Then, in his major race speech in Philadelphia, Obama shifted his position somewhat, saying, “Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes.” Obama has never said which ones, but it’s hard to see how those controversial remarks came from sermons that “always related to our obligation to love God and one another.”

One of the speech’s overall themes was that America had misjudged Jeremiah Wright and was jumping to conclusions on “snippets.” He explicitly warned against dismissing Wright as a demagogue and a crank. Discussing the matter further on The View, he (gently) rebuked Elizabeth Hasselbeck for judging Wright on “the five stupidest things [he] had said in his life.”

Then Wright went to the National Press Club, and his hour-long, bombastic, controversy-embracing performance suggested that those five things were not, in fact, out of the ordinary. The following day, Obama cut his ties to Wright — strangely not withdrawing his finger-wagging at the nation for thinking Wright was a demagogue and a crank. He criticized commentators who had “characterized” his church. After another longtime friend and mentor, Catholic priest Michael Pfleger, offered similarly outrageous remarks from Trinity’s pulpit, Obama announced Saturday that he is leaving the church. Could Obama admit that the “caricature” was in fact an accurate portrait?

When challenging his questioners, Obama never seems snippy or short-tempered. Typically, he’s pleasantly and patiently understanding of the questioner’s blithering ignorance of the true story. We’ve seen him close to angry twice, though.

The first was in the final debate of the Democratic primary, when George Stephanopoulos asked him about his relationship with William Ayers. The reaction was a mix of mild exasperation and befuddlement — as if Stephanopoulos had asked him to defend his position on the Infield Fly rule. Obama argued that the notion that his past associations with Ayers “somehow reflects on me and my values, doesn’t make much sense.”

But Obama’s answer that Ayers was just a professor who lives in his neighborhood downplayed his long relationship with the man. Beyond the donations, early fundraiser, and service on boards together, blogger Tom Maguire notes Ayers was “instrumental in setting up the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, a project dedicated to public school reform which was launched in January 1995; Barack Obama was the first chairman of the group, and they worked together on it for years. Let’s add that the fundraiser hosted by Ayers was in 1995, at the same time Ayers and Obama were buddying up on the Chicago Annenberg Challenge; they were hardly casual acquaintances.” Noting that Obama’s campaign failed to disclose this connection, Maguire suggests the rule, “where there’s smoke and a guy with a fire extinguisher, there’s fire.”

The next most visibly defensive moment for the candidate came in an April 8 interview with The Today Show’s Meredith Vieira. Mentioning that the New York Times’ Frank Rich had accused Obama of “libeling” John McCain for accusing the Republican of calling for 100 years of war. Vieira asked, “are you willing to admit that you have distorted his statements?”

“That’s just not accurate, Meredith. We can pull up the quotes on YouTube. What John McCain was saying was, that he is happy to have a potential, long-term occupation in Iraq. Happy may be overstating it. He is willing to have a long-term occupation of Iraq — as long as a hundred years,” Obama responded.

But Obama had not initially characterized McCain’s comments as supporting a “long-term occupation.” Obama in fact said, “He is willing to send our troops into another 100 years of war in Iraq”; also, “We are bogged down in a war that John McCain now suggests might go on for another 100 years.”

These comments are, as Vieira suggested, inaccurate. McCain made clear he didn’t want, see, or predict another 100 years of war. He explicitly spoke of a peacetime military presence: “We’ve been in Japan for 60 years. We’ve been in South Korea for 50 years or so. . . . That would be fine with me, as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed.”

But there’s a pattern emerging here: The Iowa ABC reporter was wrong in presuming Obama had forgotten his flag pin. Voters were at first wrong to think Obama had seen Wright’s controversial sermons, and then they wrongly and unfairly judged Wright. Then even if they were proven correct in their assessment of Wright, the press was wrong in “caricaturing” the tone of services at Trinity United. Stephanopoulos was wrong to presume that Obama’s relationship with Ayers was of concern to the voters. Vieira was wrong to accuse Obama of mischaracterizing McCain’s remarks.

No candidate enjoys admitting when he or she is wrong. But one of the ways Obama stood out as more than just a freshman senator when he came to Washington was his warm humanity, his humility, his willingness to express that “pang of shame.”

The pang, it seems, is long gone.

– Jim Geraghty writes The Campaign Spot for NRO.

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