Published October 23, 2009
I have argued before that the tone and manner in which one practices politics are undervalued commodities, especially at a presidential level. The public looks for leaders who are large-minded rather than petty and peevish, who engage in public arguments rather than in personal attacks, who want to solve problems rather than settle scores. Tone and approach are important not simply for the aesthetics of politics but also because of what they reveal about a person's predisposition and attitude, temperament and spirit.
That is but one reason why President Obama's war on Fox News — being carried out by him and his top aides — is so unwise. One of the attractions of Obama during the election — one of his attractions to me, who wrote favorably about him several times — was his tone and countenance, his apparent interest in a serious engagement with issues, and his professed allergy to politics practiced by those who are bitter and brittle. We should, he said, “resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long.” He went on to say, “I will listen to you, especially when we disagree.” All impressive and high-minded sentiments. And all, apparently, a ruse.
We have seen from this White House Nixonian tendencies and, it would appear, a burning anger and resentment toward its critics. Whether it's Fox News, the Chamber of Commerce, or companies that sponsor reports that take issue with the administration's assessments, there seems to be a cast of mind that views critics as enemies, as individuals and institutions that need to be ridiculed, delegitimized, or ruined. Given the administration's brazen public statements, one can only imagine what is being said privately, behind closed doors, as strategies are plotted and put into effect.
This is disquieting for any number of reasons. Among them is that the presidency is the most powerful office in the world and the temptation for the chief executive and his top aides to misuse that power is considerable. I understand that in the daily give-and-take of politics there will be some rough stuff said and done, that the better angels of our nature can often get pushed aside given the pressure of governing this nation and the partisan crossfire that is a permanent feature of politics. And in the White House it's easy enough to feel that you're being treated unfairly and therefore want to strike back. I get all that. But there are lines that ought not to be crossed, temptations that need to be resisted, and people in the White House who need to say “no” to tactics that begin to drag an administration, and a country, down. There need to be, in short, people who care about character.
The Obama White House is showing a fondness for intimidation tactics that might work well in the wards of Chicago but that don't have a place in the most important and revered political institution in America. To see these impulses manifest themselves so early in Obama's presidency, and given all that he has said to the contrary, is rather startling. The danger is that as the pressures mount and the battles accrue and the political heat intensifies, these impulses will grow stronger, the constraints on them will grow weaker, and the voices of caution and reason will continue to be ignored. If that should come to pass — if what we are seeing now is only a preview of coming attractions — then the Obama administration, and this nation, will pay a very high price. Mark my words.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.