It is worth recalling that back in March, President Obama altered the schedule of his address to the nation on Libya to avoid conflicting with the finals of “Dancing With the Stars.” That, of course, was absurd, a diminishment of the office of the President and an act that trivialized the human tragedy occurring in Libya. But Obama made his priorities clear, or, as I interpreted it, his leadership instincts, which is to say his lack of them. The President chose to accommodate the Americans who care about reality dance competitions first, and the overthrowing of a terrorist dictator last. No point in trying to lead them to think otherwise.
Then, yesterday, supposedly in search of bi-partisan solutions to the employment problems in America that will not wait until November, 2012, the President scheduled his speech laying out his jobs program to conflict with the Republican candidates debate….a thoroughly small and petty gesture, unworthy of a President and disrespectful of the democratic process.
The Presidency is the office for great statesmen, and great statesmen do not use important policy events to undermine the political nomination process of the opposing party, or feel so insecure that they feel the need to do so. This was a gratuitous demonstration of contempt, and completely counter-productive in a Washington environment that must foster more trust and cooperation, not less. This is the act of a Richard Nixon, mean-spirited and unsportsmanlike. “Hey Republicans! I care more about “Dancing With the Stars” than I do about respecting your Mickey Mouse presidential contenders! Kiss my ass!”
Yes, that’s going to help the country a lot. This sure to bring us together. I have real hope now.
Naturally, the White House lied about it, denying that the scheduling conflict was intentional. Jay Carney, who is squandering what little credibility he has left, told reporters that it was “a coincidence.” Right. Literally nobody believes this. (As usual in such cases, we are left with two unpalatable options: if the White House really was that ill-informed, it is frighteningly incompetent. If, in the alternative, the scheduling conflict was intentional, the White House is petty, and lying about it. Which do we prefer?)
Larry Sabato, director of University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said Mr. Obama’s decision was obviously intentional. “It can’t be an accident that Obama scheduled this for the night of the GOP debate,” Sabato told Hotsheet, noting that “the obvious motive was to upstage [the GOP candidates] in the most dramatic way.” For the President to stick his fingers in the eyes, Three Stooges-style, of the other party just to entertain his most combative supporters who care nothing about respect, fairness and civility may be satisfying, but it is oh so stupid. (Time for another round of fawning essays about how President Obama is just too brilliant for the earthly toils of politics.) Obama’s stature is further reduced by this unseemly display, and it is just one more bit of proof that he does not know how to look like, behave like, or act like a leader. Ah, but Keith Olbermann was happy, tweeting “This is the Obama I like…” That endorsement alone should allow any rational observer to assess the class, dignity and fairness of the President’s conduct. Olbermann, the perfect embodiment of the denigrating term Mark Halperin applied to Obama on “Morning Joe,” thinks this is an appropriate way for leaders to behave. He thinks this, because Halperin’s term accurately describes him, and in this case, it accurately describes Obama as well.
To compound the offense, Obama’s petty strategem didn’t even work. To his great honor and credit, Speaker of the House John Boehner said no, and insisted that Obama reschedule. At the risk of upsetting Keith Olbermann, the White House backed down, adding a symbolic defeat to a revealing gaffe.
Leaders reveal their strengths and weaknesses in small matters as much as large ones. The scrimey counter-scheduling of a speech that should have been above use as an expedient tool of political trickery is just one more self-inflicted wound on President Obama’s credibility as a leader, in a slow-motion death by a thousand cuts.