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

Do I look “illegal”?

Here’s a great American, fretting about immigrants:

Few of their children in the country learn English; they import many books from [their nation of origin] …. The signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages, and in some places only [the other]. They begin of late to make all their bonds and other legal writings in their own language, which (though I think it ought not to be) are allowed good in our courts, where the [non-English] business so increases that there is continual need of interpreters; and I suppose in a few years they will also be necessary in the Assembly, to tell one half of our legislators what the other half say.

If I didn’t tip my hand with the use of the word “great,” it may surprise you to learn that the American doing that fretting is not a current member of the Republican Party, but Benjamin Franklin; and the immigrants occasioning that fretting are not Latinos but Germans. The above passage is a quote from one of Franklin’s letters, dated 9 May 1753, which I found in H.W. Brands’ excellent biography The First American.

These were my people Franklin was fretting about. Most of the time it’s easy to forget that I have an ethnicity, much less one that was once at odds with an English-speaking colonial culture. That’s my privilege as a white man in the twenty-first century U.S. Many folks don’t enjoy such a privilege—particularly not in Arizona, where a widely-discussed law will soon allow police to ask for proof of legal residence based on only a “reasonable suspicion” that someone is in the country illegally. It’s an invitation to racial profiling, aimed squarely at people of the current fret-worthy ethnicity, Hispanics.

Fortunately, the American Civil Liberties Union (among other organizations, including the federal government) will contest the law. In another 250 years, maybe this law will seem as quaint as Benjamin Franklin complaining about street signs in German—but before then, I’m sure the ACLU would appreciate your support.