By Elvin Lim
In recent memory, there was Al Gore , then it was John Kerry. It was a only a matter of time before President Barack Obama would be compared to the failed Democratic presidential bid of Michael Dukakis in 1988. According to Noemi Emery, Dukakis and Obama are “both creatures of the liberal Northeast and of Harvard, with no sense at all of most of the rest of the country; both rationalists who impose legalistic criteria on emotion-rich subjects; both with fixed ideas of who society’s victims are, which do not accord with the views of the public.”
With the economy still struggling and the President insistently on the unpopular side of the debate about the Ground Zero mosque, Barack Obama has become the newest target of an ancient charge that Democrats are “clueless, condescending, and costly.”
Abraham Lincoln once invited the nation to be guided by “the better angels of our nature.” But when he said those words in 1861, the North was less than inspired and the South was surely unmoved. The nation did eventually come to the right conclusion about slavery by the end of the Civil War but it would take much longer (via the detour called Jim Crow) before we came close to the right conclusion about racial equality.
The civic education of a nation takes time, and Barack Obama should take heed. In a democracy, public opinion is king. And the king should either be obeyed (and this is typically the path of least resistance), or he should be educated (this is leadership). But Barack Obama has done neither. People say he has been too professorial. But maybe he hasn’t been professorial enough.
For after endorsing the idea of the mosque near Ground Zero and resisting the path of least resistance, a day later, the president back-tracked, saying, “I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right that people have that dates back to our founding.” (As Kerry was for the Iraq war before he was against it.) Well done, Polonius.
If Obama was referring to the Declaration of Independence, he should have known (as Lincoln came to know) that even truths which are self-evident must nevertheless be said, resaid, and said again before stubborn majorities come to see the light. Obama should either have deferred to the majority against the idea of the mosque, or tried to convince the majority that their particular sensitivity about the location of the mosque was illegitimate. What he should not have done was perform the unhappy medium: tell people they were wrong but not wrong enough that the President himself would take up the considerable challenge (called leadership) of disabusing stubborn majorities of their ill-conceived conclusions.
If presidents dare tell the American people that they are wrong, then they should also be brave enough to follow through with a thorough explanation. “I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there” is not an explanation. It is an abdication.
Where Gore, Kerry, and now Obama have fallen short is their failure to assume that that which is self-evident to them almost always demands explanation for others. And quite a lot of it, because our better angels have never popped up spontaneously like a burning bush. Ask the abolitionists, and the suffragists (and the best teachers): they of all people knew that intuitions feel utterly right and unassailable until they are brought under the prolonged and penetrating light of reason. We have always fumbled our way toward the right side of history because most of our leaders have bowed to public opinion whereas only the great ones have educated it. The worst kind of leaders are those who assert without explanation, as if they were absolute monarchs, and then accused their errant subjects of being bitter as they cling on to their guns. Such presidents are invariably cast and perceived as clueless and condescending and rightly so, because they were too quick to give up on the redemptive promise of their fellow Americans. The necessary price of democracy is that majorities matter, even and especially when they are wrong, because public opinion has no patience for the tyranny even of enlightened Democratic presidents.
Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. See Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.