Bully Pulpit Ethics: Obama’s Alarming Flat Learning Curve

This can no longer be called a rookie mistake, like the Prof. Gates arrest affair. President Obama has now had plenty of time to absorb the fact that the President does not have a blank check to insert himself into every local controversy and use his office to sway public opinion and the conduct of others regarding matters outside his responsibilities. Still, he continues to do it.

It may seem trivial at first: the President gave an interview on TNT in which he pointedly suggested that NBA superstar LeBron James consider the Chicago Bulls as he faces free agency.  After weighing in on the most important things for James to seek from his current team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, if he was going to stay there, the President said, “You know, like I said, I don’t want to meddle. I will say this: (Derrick) Rose, Joakim Noah it’s a pretty good core. You know, you could see LeBron fitting in pretty well there.”

An African-American President suggesting a switch of teams to a prominent African-American superstar is more than meddling; it’s an abuse of power and position. Whether LeBron James stays in Cleveland or not is a serious matter for the Cavaliers franchise and also the city of Cleveland. The President of the United States should not be planting ideas, taking sides, or promoting one American city against the interests of another.


But apparently not obvious enough for Barack Obama. His failure to grasp the simple concept that the President of the United States is not a special advocate for specific parts of the country is just part of the problem. Obama has condemned a reasonable state law passed by democratic means while misrepresenting its provisions; he has attacked Supreme Court decisions that were competently argued and well-reasoned; he has presumed the guilt of corporations while investigations were ongoing; and he, most memorably, called a Cambridge police officer “stupid” when he had scant information about the event in question. If his comments pointing LeBron James to his beloved Chicago were an isolated gaffe, I would agree with the inevitable commenters who are going to say, “Come on–this is no big deal.”  It is a trend, however, and the symptom of a mindset that is alarming in a democratically elected leader.

The “bully pulpit” is not to be used recklessly, for blatantly political purposes or for issues that should not concern the President of the United States. To do so is to degrade one of the most important tools of Presidential power. When the President expresses an opinion, the public has to believe that the opinion is fair, reasonable, serious, and of national importance. A President who thinks it is his place to sway contract negotiations between a privately owned basketball franchise and a premiere athlete raises troubling suspicions that he…

  • Doesn’t understand his job,
  • Does not comprehend the appropriate use of power,
  • Does not recognize the extent of his ability to influence others,
  • Does not respect the rights of private businesses to do business without gratuitous interference from the government,
  • Believes that the he has been elected is some kind of ultimate arbiter-supervisor-Big Brother-dictator. King, perhaps.

He has not. There are limits to presidential power, and many of them involve good judgment, humility, and self-control. After almost a year and a half in the job, President Obama shows no signs that he has learned this, and it is worrisome.

7 thoughts on “Bully Pulpit Ethics: Obama’s Alarming Flat Learning Curve

  1. Do you think he was really trying to sway the outcome, or just offer an opinion that’s perfectly obvious as “homerism” to any sports fan?

    I think you make a great point overall about his disturbing utterances while President. I’m not quite convinced this is one of them, though.

    What probably made it worse is the “I don’t want to meddle …” part. If he’d just said something like “I’m from Chicago, and I would love to see LeBron go there …”, I think it would have looked exactly like what it was — a home-town fan who happens to be President wishing for a good outcome for his team rather than looking to some like a sober, well-informed judgment that should be taken seriously. Obama may be well informed, but he is no more qualified than I am to pass judgment on where LeBron James should play.

    Sometimes, Obama is so tone-deaf that I often wonder if he is a human being at all. And maybe you are right about this being part of a trend — that trend is fairly obvious with or without this incident.

    But I’m not quite convinced based on that comment … although with a little more effort, you could probably get me there. 🙂

  2. I think Presidents are like the Greek Gods—every time they stooped to involving themselves in human affairs, bad things happened…humans burned up or went mad or got turned into trees. This was part of the Lewinski matter that is seldom mentioned. Clinton knew, or should have known, that hos involvement with her risked pulling her into the frying glare of media infamy, and might ruin her life (and it did); he didn’t give a damn.

    The power a leader has over opinions is enormous, and that means the President has an obligation to be extra-careful, because the Butterfly effect is in full sway….anything he does or says can have consequences far outside of his intentions. For a POTUS not to understand this is like having a kid with matches, or nitro. This incident is as good as any to inspire someone to grab Obama by the lapels and say, “Stop! This is reckless, and it creates the impression that you don’t use your power fairly.”

  3. While I agree that the President shouldn’t have offered his opinion over the Gates incident, I think it;s ok for him to be a Bulls fan and hope leBron goes to Chicago.

    Geez, Jack, first you knock him for pretending to be a White Sox fan, and now you knock him for being an all-to-real Bulls fan. While I hope LeBron comes to LA, I’ll fight for Obama’s right to hope he goes to Chicago.

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