The President’s Empty Calls for Civility

It seems like ever since the election ended, President Obama has been quick to scold us to be a bit nicer.  At a commencement speech a few weeks ago, he said

We cannot expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down,” Obama told about 92,000 people during a commencement address at Michigan Stadium. “You can question someone’s views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism.”

Calling for “a basic level of civility in our public debate,” Obama said: “These arguments we’re having over government and healthcare and war and taxes are serious arguments. They should arouse people’s passions, and it’s important for everyone to join in the debate, with all the rigor that a free people require.”….

“We’ve got politicians calling each other all sorts of unflattering names, pundits and talking heads shout at each other,” Obama said.

“As I’ve found out after a year in the White House, changing this type of slash-and-burn politics isn’t easy,” Obama said. “And part of what civility requires is that we recall the simple lesson most of us learned from our parents: Treat others as you would like to be treated, with courtesy and respect.”

This was far from the first time he has made such pleas.  But is Mr. Obama treating others “with courtesy and respect?”

Perhaps I’m wrong, but I can’t recall another time in my life where the president has used his bully pulpit to make specific, targeted, personal attacks on commentators who are not politicians, but individual citizens exercising their freedom of speech.  Yet, President Obama, the man who calls for civility, has done just that on a number of occasions.  He calls radio commenters Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, who often disagree with him, “troublesome” and that their statements are “vitriol.”  When asked about criticisms that Sarah Palin raised about his nuclear policy, he specifically stated that he refused to respond to her concerns at all, and instead dropped a sarcastic comment on her lack of “expertise” in the matter, making no attempts to justify his policy.  He demands that House Republicans not listen to Rush Limbaugh, rather than actually address their agenda. 

These sorts of insults don’t stop with the president himself, but extend to those who speak for him.  Just a month into the presidency, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs personally called out CNBC reporter Rick Santelli in an extended series of comments in which he not only disagreed with Santelli’s opinions, but took jabs at his personal style and home.  Gibbs answers reporters’ questions with condescension and insults, comparing one to his child.  He mocks Sarah Palin, for no other apparent reason other than to get a cheap laugh.  When a representative for Rush Limbaugh asked if the president, who is a frequent golfer, would join Mr. Limbaugh in a round, his administration gave a response that would make any sixth grader snicker: “Rush Limbaugh can play with himself.” 

Now, you may be thinking, “I don’t like Glenn Beck either!” or “Surely Rush Limbaugh can defend himself!”  And you may be right.  But, doesn’t it concern you just a little bit that the man with the bulk of the power, including vast amounts of power over the airwaves, seems so inclined to make personal attacks?  His statements are not merely disagreements on policy, nor just dismissals, but insults of the sort that mature adults usually scoff.  And he does this while calling for the rest of the world to be civil.

One could perhaps turn a blind eye, or  perhaps quietly note the hypocrisy of the calls for civility and move on, if the insults were only limited to wealthy commentators with national audiences.  But they aren’t.  President Obama’s failure to meet his own calls for civility extend to throwing sexually charged insults at citizens as ordinary as you and me.  One would think that the President of the United States would have more class, that he would be above the childish antics of tittering  Anderson Cooper and Keith Olbermann, but he is not.  Instead, the President of the United States, apparently lacking a better answer to his critics, has resorted to calling them “teabaggers,” a reference to a sexual act.     

Naturally, many commentators and citizens have said negative things about the president as well, as has been the case throughout the history of this great nation.  But the President of the United States is not a radio commenter or a civilian protester; he has real power and his words shape real policy.  Even if he were not calling for civility, his office demands that he be held to, and serve at, a much higher standard than those whose careers are shaped by ratings and ad revenue.  But what is truly disturbing is that he continues to make these insults and personal attacks while making a point of calling for civility over and over again.  Does President Obama not realize the hypocrisy of his ways, or does he simply not care?  Does he believe that, because he won, he is able to demand assent and agreement on all issues under his control?  Does civility, to the president, simply mean a lack of dissent?

One Response

  1. Your last sentence appropriately sums up this administration’s approach to “civil discourse.” The President confuses civility in politics with concession in principle.

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