Barack Obama’s (lack of) moral leadership

My Sunday morning reading includes a trenchant essay by Jacob Weisberg at Slate, which gathers together President Obama’s disappointing performances on immigration, freedom of religion, and gay marriage under the rubric of moral cowardice:

Obama has had numerous occasions to assert leadership on values issues this summer: Arizona’s crude anti-immigrant law, the battle over Prop 8 and gay marriage, and the backlash against what Fox News persists in calling the “Ground Zero mosque.” These battles raise fundamental questions of national identity, liberty, and individual rights. When Lindsey Graham argues for rewriting the Constitution to eliminate the birthright citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment, or Newt Gingrich proposes a Saudi standard for the free exercise of religion, they’re taking positions at odds with America’s basic ideals. But Obama’s instinctive caution has steered him away from casting these questions as moral or civil rights issues. On none of them has he shown anything resembling courage. [links sic]

To Weisberg’s list, I’d also add the need for comprehensive, carbon-limiting energy legislation. Treating undocumented immigrants like human beings, Muslim and gay Americans like citizens, climate change as a genuine impending human-created disaster—these are all inherently moral positions. Liberals have long been sick of watching that morality overruled by the weird, selfish, other-hating morality of contemporary American conservatism. I voted for Barack Obama (and I think lots of us did) because he seemed likely to articulate liberal beliefs in explicitly moral language, and do it with conviction.

Remember his campaign speech on race? With his feet to the media fire over his apparently scandalous association with Jeremiah Wright, Obama acknowledged the subtleties and complications of our national racial history, without losing sight of basic principles of right and wrong:

The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country—a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old—is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.

That’s the Barack Obama I wanted to be President. I could’ve sworn I voted for that one. But it doesn’t seem to be the guy who ended up in office.

Candidate Obama at a rally in Pittsburgh, 21 April 2008. Photo by

3 thoughts on “Barack Obama’s (lack of) moral leadership

  1. wow, this is why liberal thinking never gets anywhere in this country. Instead of saying “great, we’ve made a start” (on healthcare, repealing DADT) and “great that the president dared to speak out about the mosque” — in the context of the worst handover of the presidency since the great depression — we say “not enough done in 18 months” and we don’t make an effort at the midterms, and we hand the whole mess to Sarah Palin. It’s too bad that we didn’t listen to Obama’s acceptance speech — this is not change, this is the opportunity for change. The work is still to do. Get out there and work for the most liberal candidates you can find. Or the opposition to the most illiberal Republicans you can find — those people are not going to be very liberal, because they have to win in their district, but let’s take it a step at a time.

  2. Well, fair enough, B. For the record, I am largely happy with the Obama Administration’s policies, and with much of the legislation they’ve managed to pass against unprecedented partisan opposition. But it’s clear that actual accomplishments haven’t been enough for a large portion of my fellow Americans. (Who, admittedly, seem to want completely unrealistic things like deficit reduction AND tax cuts.)

    The President needs to do more than implement policy—he needs to explain to people why it’s the right policy. And he needs to take back the high ground from responsibility-free blowhards like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin when they’re on the record in opposition to the Bill of Rights itself.

  3. Sorry, the people you’re talking about (90% of them anyway) won’t listen to any channel Obama has access to. They’re listening to Fox News instead. If you want the liberal agenda to be visible, you have to do things like calling Republican voters and telling them why you have a different opinion on the state of the world. Once in a while, you do get someone who is willing to listen and talk, and that’s when you can make a real difference.

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