The President and the Politics of Civility

May 05, 2010

Last Saturday, Americans were again instructed on their political manners by their Moralizer in Chief.

While delivering a commencement address to the University of Michigan's graduating students, President Barack Obama's comments were really meant for the nation's political class. His speech dealt with the importance of "a basic level of civility in our public debate."

"We cannot expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down," Mr. Obama said. He spoke against "demonizing" political opponents or "questioning their motives or their patriotism."

It is "not the hurt feelings or the bruised egos" such rhetoric causes that's problematic, the president assured us. No, this "kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric" discourages "compromise . . . undermines democratic deliberation. . . robs us of a rational and serious debate." It can even "send signals" that "violence is a justifiable response." There is a need in politics, as the president said, to "treat others as you would like to be treated, with courtesy and respect."

A lot is right with those words. But there's a lot wrong with them coming from Mr. Obama, who is contributing to the "slash and burn politics" he preaches against.

If Mr. Obama is serious about his commitment to courtesy and respect, then he will need to demonstrate presidential leadership and rein in the verbal excesses of the leaders of his own party. He could start by having a conversation with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who condemned those with different views on health care as being "un-American." He might also share a word with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who recently accused Republicans of being "anti-American" and wanting to continue to "make love to Wall Street" by pressing for changes in a bill regulating the financial industry.

About Karl Rove

Karl Rove served as Senior Advisor to President George W. Bush from 2000–2007 and Deputy Chief of Staff from 2004–2007. At the White House he oversaw the Offices of Strategic Initiatives, Political Affairs, Public Liaison, and Intergovernmental Affairs and was Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy, coordinating the White House policy-making process.

Before Karl became known as "The Architect" of President Bush's 2000 and 2004 campaigns, he was president of Karl Rove + Company, an Austin-based public affairs firm that worked for Republican candidates, nonpartisan causes, and nonprofit groups. His clients included over 75 Republican U.S. Senate, Congressional and gubernatorial candidates in 24 states, as well as the Moderate Party of Sweden.

Karl writes a weekly op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, is a Newsweek columnist and is the author of the forthcoming book "Courage and Consequence" (Threshold Editions).

Email the author atKarl@Rove.comor visit him on the web Or, you can send a Tweet to @karlrove.

Mr. Obama can give friendly counsel to the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who authorized a fund-raising email calling conservatives "reptiles" and "fire-breathing tea party nut jobs." Was this in the spirit of "courtesy and respect" Mr. Obama says is vital to our democracy?

Maybe Mr. Obama should sit down with Florida Congressman Alan Grayson, who grabbed public attention when he said "Republicans want you to die quickly if you get sick," told former Vice President Dick Cheney to "STFU," and accused Republicans of "being foot dragging, knuckle dragging Neanderthals" who lacked "a conscience." Even a mild White House rebuke of this Democratic backbencher would have helped establish a better tone in Washington.

Mr. Obama should also visit with his White House staff, starting with Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. The acerbic Alabamian told reporters that when it came to dealing with BP on the oil disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, the administration would "keep the boot on their throat."

And since Mr. Gibbs credited Interior Secretary Ken Salazar with the memorable phrase, the president should call in his otherwise mild-mannered Interior secretary for a talk about treating people with "courtesy and respect," especially in a moment of crisis.

For a man who is enormously self-aware, Mr. Obama could also use a little bit more self-awareness. He should consider how powerful—and inappropriate—a model he sets by his own frequent coarse and uncivil language.

For example, last week Mr. Obama suggested that Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell was "cynical and deceptive" in arguing that the administration's financial regulation bill would allow more bailouts "when he knows that it would do just the opposite." Does implying the Senate GOP leader is a hypocrite and a liar make reaching compromise easier?

Mr. Obama even draws on the Bible for political attacks. In a teleconference with religious groups supporting health-care reform, he accused opponents of the legislation of "bearing false witness." Or take last September when, in a health-care speech to Congress, the president—in a single paragraph—accused his critics of spreading "bogus claims" and "lies" and of being "cynical" and "irresponsible."

Even if you believe, as the president does, that the concerns of his critics are wrong, why use such sulfuric rhetoric? This is not the kind of thing the president's predecessor, his predecessor's father or President Ronald Reagan did or would allow their staff to routinely do.

If Mr. Obama wants his Ann Arbor words to be taken seriously, then he needs to rein in his party, his staff and himself. Presidential leadership matters as much as presidential words, perhaps more. Mr. Obama should back up his inspiring call to civility with action.

This article originally appeared on on Wednesday, May 5, 2010.

Related Article

February 29, 2024 |
This year will be only the second time a former president faces the man who defeated him four years before. ...
February 22, 2024 |
Presidential politics is principally about consolidation and addition. ...
February 15, 2024 |
The Biden campaign took a torpedo to its engine room last week in the form of special counsel Robert Hur’s report. ...
February 08, 2024 |
I first saw him on Friday, Sept. 14, 2001, at Ground Zero in New York. ...
Button karlsbooks
Button readinglist
Button nextapperance