February 14th, 2011
Obama Isn’t Trying to ‘Weaken America’
Some conservatives call the president the political equivalent of a suicide bomber: so consumed with hatred that he’s willing to blow himself up in order to inflict casualties on a society he loathes.
Some conservative commentators may feel inclined to spend Presidents Day ruminating over Barack Obama’s evil intentions, or denouncing the chief executive as an alien interloper and ideologue perversely determined to damage the republic. Instead, they should consider the history of John Adams’s White House prayer and develop a more effective focus for their criticism.
On Nov. 2, 1800, a day after he became the first president to occupy the newly constructed executive mansion, Adams wrote to his wife Abigail: “I pray Heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”
More than a century later, Franklin Roosevelt ordered the inscription of these words on a mantel piece in the State Dining Room, inviting serious consideration over the extent to which divine providence responded to the earnest entreaty of our second president.
In terms of wisdom, some of Adams’s successors who “ruled” under the White House roof most certainly fell short. James Buchanan comes to mind—or Jimmy Carter.
When it comes to honesty, skeptics might also cite heaven’s mixed blessings, reviewing a long history of presidential prevarication. Richard Nixon almost certainly lied about Watergate, as did Bill Clinton about his amorous adventures.
But in the deeper sense that Adams longed for “honest men” to occupy the White House, the nation has fared much better: Those who rose to the highest office worked hard, took their responsibilities seriously, and sincerely pursued the nation’s good—in order, if nothing else, to secure a positive verdict on their own place in history.
Even the most corruption-tarred presidents, Ulysses S. Grant and Warren G. Harding, agonized over the demands of the office and drew scant personal benefit from the scandals involving unworthy associates. They both retained the profound affection of the populace while they lived and drew massive outpourings of grief at their funerals. Both (especially Grant) have begun a recent rise in the estimation of historians.
John F. Kennedy may have suffered from sex addiction (and a host of other secret maladies) while Franklin Pierce drank heavily in the White House (in part in mourning for his 11-year-old son who died before his eyes in a train accident two months before the inauguration). But neither man ignored his duties, and both had previously demonstrated their love of country with courageous military service.
In short, the White House record of more than 200 years shows plenty of bad decisions but no bad men. For all their foibles, every president attempted to rise to the challenges of leadership and never displayed disloyal or treasonous intent.
This history makes some of the current charges about Barack Obama especially distasteful—and destructive to the conservative cause.
One typical column appeared on Feb. 5 at the well-regarded American Thinker website, under the heading: “Obama Well Knows What Chaos He Has Unleashed.” Victor Sharpe solemnly declares: “My fear is that Obama is not naïve at all, but he instead knows only too well what he is doing, for he is eagerly promoting Islamic power in the world while diminishing the West.”
These attitudes thrive well beyond the blogosphere and the right-wing fringe. On Jan. 7, Sarah Palin spoke briefly on Laura Ingraham’s radio show, saying, “What I believe that Obama is doing right now—he is hell-bent on weakening America.” While acknowledging that “it’s gonna get some people all wee-weed up again,” she repeated and amplified her charge that “what Obama is doing” is “purposefully weakening America—because he understood that debt weakened America, domestically and internationally, and yet now he supports increasing debt.”
The assumption that the president intends to harm or destroy the nation that elected him has become so widespread that the chief advertising pitch for Dinesh D’Souza’s best-selling book, “The Roots of Obama’s Rage,” promises to “reveal Obama for who he really is: a man driven by the anti-colonial ideology of his father and the first American president to actually seek to reduce America’s strength, influence and standard of living.”
None of the attacks on Mr. Obama’s intentions offers an even vaguely plausible explanation of how the evil genius, once he has ruined our “strength, influence and standard of living,” hopes to get himself re-elected. In a sense, the president’s most paranoid critics pay him a perverse compliment in maintaining that his idealism burns with such pure, all-consuming heat that he remains blissfully unconcerned with minor matters like his electoral future. They label Mr. Obama as the political equivalent of a suicide bomber: so overcome with hatred (or “rage”) that he’s perfectly willing to blow himself up in order to inflict casualties on a society he loathes.
On his radio show last July 2, the most influential conservative commentator of them all reaffirmed his frequent charge that the president seeks economic suffering “on purpose.” Rush Limbaugh explained: “I think we face something we’ve never faced before in the country—and that is, we’re now governed by people who do not like the country.” In his view, this hostility to the United States relates to a grudge connected to Mr. Obama’s black identity. “There’s no question that payback is what this administration is all about, presiding over the decline of the United States of America, and doing so happily.”
Regardless of the questionable pop psychology of this analysis, as a political strategy it qualifies as almost perfectly imbecilic. Republicans already face a formidable challenge in convincing a closely divided electorate that the president pursues wrong-headed policies. They will never succeed in arguing that those initiatives have been cunningly and purposefully designed to wound the republic. In Mr. Obama’s case, it’s particularly unhelpful to focus on alleged bad intentions and rotten character when every survey shows more favorable views of his personality than his policies.
Moreover, the current insistence in seeing every misstep or setback by the Obama administration as part of a diabolical master plan for national destruction disregards the powerful reverence for the White House that’s been part of our national character for two centuries.
Even in times of panic and distress, we hope the Almighty has answered John Adams’s prayer. Americans may not see a given president as their advocate, but they’re hardly disposed to view him as their enemy—and a furtive, determined enemy at that. For 2012, Republicans face a daunting challenge in running against the president. That challenge becomes impossible if they’re also perceived as running against the presidency.
Mr. Medved hosts a daily, nationally syndicated radio show and is the author of “The 5 Big Lies About American Business” (recently out in paperback by Three Rivers Press).