Preachers and professors have it hard as presidents. They sermonize too much. Finally the public gets tired of being lectured by those whom they increasingly see as no more upright than themselves. Prophets crumble from feet of clay, and stones shatter glass houses. So it was with Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter, and so it is now with Barack Obama.
The Obama administration is throwing stones at a lot of people — John Boehner, Republicans, tea-partiers, Fox News, Glenn Beck, doctors, insurers, Wall Street, and business in general.
Such invective invites a response, and here the White House is becoming as fragile as glass. We saw that recently in the presidential petulance at supposedly being talked about “like a dog,” and in a touchy press secretary Robert Gibbs unloading at everyone from Rush Limbaugh to Forbes magazine.
Last February, Attorney General Eric Holder, self-appointed racial philosopher as well as the nation’s chief law-enforcement officer, lectured his fellow Americans: “In things racial, we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.” Professor Holder went on to complain that “certain subjects are off limits and that to explore them risks at best embarrassment and at worst the questioning of one’s character.”
Fair enough: Most Americans would be willing to engage Holder in his desired racial seminar — if it were two-sided, and did not devolve into something like the imbroglio over Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates. Before even hearing the facts of that case, remember, the president of the United States, as arbiter of racial relations on campus as well as commander-in-chief, rushed to condemn the Cambridge police for acting “stupidly” and then accused law-enforcement officers in general of racial stereotyping.
In contrast, did Eric Holder’s proposed conversation include questions of welfare dependency, anti-social cultural messages, or lack of personal responsibility — in addition to racism — to explain much higher than average rates of illegitimacy, illiteracy, failure to graduate from high school, and criminal behavior among some minority groups?
So far, Holder himself has never dared to raise such “off-limits” controversial issues. Yet in the case of the Arizona immigration statute, the attorney general was hardly so reluctant. He lambasted the legislation as “unfortunate,” possibly unconstitutional, and leading to racial stereotyping — all before he had even read the law. Cowardly?
Recently, Michelle Obama advised Americans to eat better foods to combat the national epidemic of obesity. She envisions using government power to teach restaurants how to restructure their menus, and helping targeted communities with federal money to improve their collective diets.
Fair enough once more: As a nation we are probably too fat, and First Ladies often seek to better the American condition. But as in the Holder case, does the First Lady, as first professor and preacher, really wish to lecture the American people on their personal sins and to follow that up with federal programs and expenditures? If the issue is to promote better health by using the bully pulpit of the First Family in symbolic fashion, then Michelle Obama might first more quietly start at home with her errant husband.
The presidential role model is secretively a chain smoker — a habit that promotes both heart disease and cancer, and kills millions of Americans each year. At almost every photo op, President Obama is enjoying hot dogs, ice cream, and beer. The president deserves a private life, and his smoking and consumption of fatty foods are his business alone — unless his spouse is suggesting simultaneously that the rest of us must not only avoid such behavior, but seek to fund and institutionalize its antithesis. A voter might well respond to the First Lady’s lectures on diet with something like, “First convince the first husband to stop smoking and to eat better, and then I’ll listen to your advice about my own diet.” Otherwise one might conclude that smoking can keep down weight as effectively as restricting one’s diet can. Such are the wages of a White House of “Do as I say, not as I do.”
We saw more of this disconnect between sermons and behavior when the president lectured us that in rough times we all had to cut back: “Everybody’s going to have to give. Everybody’s going to have to have some skin in the game.” Apparently that did not mean giving up one’s vacation at Martha’s Vineyard or the Costa del Sol. Lectures have consequences.
Businesses and banks are increasingly criticized for not hiring and lending while they’re sitting on trillions of dollars in cash. Both charges — made by the administration and the unions — are true. But does greed and self-interest alone explain these organizations’ reluctance to spread their wealth to others?
Maybe private companies were stung by the Obama administration’s reordering of the creditors in the Chrysler bankruptcy case. Or maybe their hesitancy derives from the serial anti-business references during the Gulf oil-spill disaster, such as the ones about putting a boot on BP’s neck and forcing it to cough up $20 billion in clean-up costs. Or maybe it has something to do with the stereotyping of insurers and doctors as greedy. Or with the refrain about suspect earners who make over $250,000, and who thus owe the rest of us higher income taxes and health-care surcharges.
Again, our average voter might respond, “If you want a two-way conversation on recovery, why not question the unions’ anti-democratic tendencies, haphazard productivity, and inflexibility, or the tax avoidance of allies like Charles Rangel, Chris Dodd, Maxine Waters, and dozens of White House staffers, or the mismanagement of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the wasted stimulus, or the new bureaucratic empires that can only hamper commerce?”
Then we come to radical Islam. The president weighed in repeatedly on the so-called Ground Zero mosque. Here too he wishes to use the symbolic prestige of his office to offer a teachable moment about a local controversy. But to play sermonizer-in-chief requires at least appearing fair-minded.
At various times, the president misrepresented the disagreement as one of legality rather than of taste and common decency. Obama finally implied that his illiberal opponents were lashing out at Islam because of rough economic times — reminiscent of his earlier psychoanalyzing of rural Pennsylvanians who voted against him in the primaries supposedly out of fear of immigrants and those “not like them” rather than because of opposition to the policies he was promising to implement.
When Mr. Abdulmutallab tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner, we first heard that he had “allegedly” done so — the same sort of tentativeness we witnessed in the president’s first interview with Al Arabiya. There he suggested that American problems with Islam were due in part to past American policies and presidents. In the Cairo speech, one would have thought Córdoba — a Western city conquered by invading Muslims — was a modern-day Amsterdam rather than a typical medieval city in which the dominant religion forced other faiths to pay obeisance.
So an enlightened president likes to lecture less-informed Americans that Muslims are not more likely than other people to promote, or be silent about, radical Islamic terror. Again, fair enough.
But is he as worried about the reality that, of the 31 major foiled terrorist attacks against the United States since 9/11, all of them involved Muslims? Again, our mythical voter might say something to the effect that “I will be careful to honor the right of Muslims to build a $100 million mosque near Ground Zero if you will at least ask the Muslim community to condemn Western Muslims who keep trying to kill those about them.”
The terrorist impulse simply does not abate. We saw it most recently in Britain, when police broke up a plot by Algerian immigrants to kill Pope Benedict — who four years ago was a target of Muslim death threats for quoting a Byzantine text. Americans know that even as the president lectures them about being intolerant of Muslims, additional Islamist plots to kill them will be uncovered — and will probably not earn as much presidential moralizing as the Ground Zero mosque.
When an attorney general, a first lady, and a president offer lectures to the American people about their purported unfounded fears, bad habits, and prejudices, like any sermonizer they invite reciprocal scrutiny, both about their own conduct and about the fairness of their critiques. As a result, a stone-throwing White House is becoming a shattered Glass House.
– NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.