Faced with chill winds from the commentariat, particularly the conservative wing, President Obama backed off several notches from his comment that the Cambridge police “acted stupidly” in their invasion of Henry Louis Gates’s home. The dispute about who said what to whom on that fateful porch and the rights or wrongs of “Gates-gate” will not be quelled by a beer summit at the White House–not as long as the Beck-Hannity-Limbaugh crowd can wring ratings out of it with the racist demographic.
In the spirit of making the imbroglio a teachable moment, the New York Times took a friendlier, Emily Post approach–“A Presidential Pitfall: Speaking One’s Mind.” The story was a cautionary meditation on Obama gaffes, citing previous occasions when Obama felt obliged to apologize (e.g., a joke about Nancy Reagan’s seances and a quip that his klutziness as bowler qualified him for the Special Olympics). The Times concluded that the bloopers were way stations on a new president’s learning curve. Lesson: speaking one’s mind can be dangerous to a president’s political health.
Perhaps joshing about an elderly First Lady and Special Olympians was a bit over the line. But another example of an alleged Obama slip cited in the Times article encroached on the historical bully pulpit, the traditional presidential prerogative to speak out for the people and against big business and Wall Street. This was the time when Obama lashed out at the fat bonuses paid to underachieving CEOs and lectured them for taking cushy trips to Las Vegas on the taxpayers’ dollar. The latter dressing-down elicited a howl from the beleaguered Las Vegas tourist industry and Obama once more apologized.
The notion that a president should take care not to offend this or that special interest is ludicrous. I hope that the result of the Cambridge affair is not to make Obama tone down his rhetoric on contentious subjects like racial profiling and executive bonuses. Indeed, for his own good and ours he should continue to vent on issues larger than football playoffs and Michael Jordan’s superiority to Kobe Bryant. He showed the right stuff when he reacted to a report that Wall Street execs raked in $18 billion in bonuses in 2008: “That is the height of irresponsibility. It is shameful. And part of what we’re going to need is for the folks on Wall Street who are asking for help to show some restraint, and show some discipline, and show some sense of responsibility.”
Actually, as thunderbolts go that was pretty low-voltage. Past presidents and presidential candidates have used more robust language when chastising Wall Street and Big Business. In the hope of inspiring the president to greater outspokenness, I have compiled a sort of Populist Bartlett’s:
“On one side are the allied hosts of monopolies. The money power, great trusts and railroad corporations, who seek the enactment of laws to benefit them and impoverish the people. On the other are the farmers, laborers, merchants and other people who produce wealth and bear the burden of taxation.” —Populist Party broadside
“No one can earn a million dollars honestly.” —William Jennings Bryan, Populist presidential candidate
“It may well be that the determination of the government (in which, gentlemen, it will not waver) to punish certain malefactors of great wealth, has been responsible for something of the trouble; at least to the extent of having caused these men to combine to bring about as much financial stress as possible, in order to discredit the policy of the government and thereby secure a reversal of that policy…” —Theodore Roosevelt
“I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.” —Eugene V. Debs, Socialist Party candidate
“It was natural and perhaps human that the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control over government itself…. These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power.” —Franklin D. Roosevelt
“The Wall Street reactionaries are not satisfied with being rich. They want to increase their power and their privileges, regardless of what happens to the other fellow. They are gluttons of privilege. These gluttons of privilege are now putting up fabulous sums of money to elect a Republican administration…. Republican reactionaries want an administration that will assure privilege for big business, regardless of what may happen to the rest of the nation.” —Harry S. Truman
“Children and dogs are as necessary to the welfare of the country as Wall Street and the railroads.” —Harry S. Truman
“My father always told me that all businessmen were sons of bitches, but I never believed it till now. ” —John F. Kennedy