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: