July 23, 2009

OT: Slow Motion Train Wreck [7:27 am]

And, by that I mean the President’s health care initiative. Last night’s press conference (pdf) was such a snoozer of wonkitude that I quit watching after about 25 minutes.

The President clearly was given some good talking points, which clearly were aimed at showing the public who will be the real victims of the the Republican strategy of obstruction to “break” Obama — those either currently or prospectively ill-served by the health care system; i.e., all of us. But, his heart clearly wasn’t in it. He could have taken those stories of families suffering, children dying, etc. and hung them around the necks of the Republican leadership, but he didn’t go for the throat.

Or rather, he didn’t go for the throat on health care. But he did offer up this discussion and, as Salon notes, it was the only point in the conference where he really seemed like the political firebrand he can be (the NYTimes article makes the same observation — pdf):

Q Thank you, Mr. President. Recently, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested at his home in Cambridge. What does that incident say to you? And what does it say about race relations in America?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I — I should say at the outset that Skip Gates is a friend, so I may be a little biased here.

I don’t know all the facts. What’s been reported, though, is that the guy forgot his keys, jimmied his way to get into the house; there was a report called into the police station that there might be a burglary taking place.

So far, so good, right? I mean, if I was trying to jigger into — well, I guess this is my house now, so — (laughter) — it probably wouldn’t happen.

(Chuckling.) But let’s say my old house in Chicago — (laughter) — here I’d get shot. (Laughter.) But so far, so good. They’re — they’re — they’re reporting. The police are doing what they should. There’s a call. They go investigate. What happens?

My understanding is, at that point, Professor Gates is already in his house. The police officer comes in. I’m sure there’s some exchange of words. But my understanding is — is that Professor Gates then shows his ID to show that this is his house, and at that point he gets arrested for disorderly conduct, charges which are later dropped.

Now, I’ve — I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that. But I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home.

And number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcing disproportionately. That’s just a fact.

What?! “I don’t know all the facts.” “[T]he Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home.”

If this were the words of the President’s predecessor (whose foibles are well known), then one might understand them. But these are the words of a professor of constitutional law from a leading US law school! Moreover, as anyone from the Boston area can tell you, this story keeps changing by the day, with details changing and continuous shifting of strategic positions all around. (See, for example, today’s competing articles from the Globe: Obama scolds Cambridge police (pdf); Sergeant at eye of storm says he won’t apologize (pdf); Professor is down-to-earth, friends say (pdf); Machismo and the Gates incident (pdf))

The kindest interpretation of the President’s words is that he is unhappy that his friend is at the center of this kind of mess. But there are plenty of interpretations that are less benign and, worse, far more damaging to the President’s political capital — at a time when he needs every bit of that capital to make progress on the agenda item that brought him to the podium last night in the first place. The LAST thing the President should be doing is weighing in on something he acknowledges he knows nothing about when he has some REAL work to get done.

Was it bad staffing? Poor political advice? Who knows? But the damage is done.

First, after listening to the comments on the local NPR affiliate during my morning shower, I raised the above topics with my wife. Then, I had the depressing experience of listening to the local Fox affiliate’s political “bombasticator” outline exactly the same argument, spun exactly as you would expect from a Fox outlet.

And then I picked up this morning’s Boston Globe — and what do you supposed was the headline above the fold?

Exactly.

Distraction; fixation on celebrity; commenting on things best left to existing institutions; working outside the institutions, rather than relying upon them.

Explain to me again how this is “change I can believe in?”

Prediction: If Ted Kennedy dies before the end of the summer, health care reform will die with him. This White House blew its chance last night, because I can guarantee that the discussion for the next week is going to be about race, and not about health care. And then it’s August.

Dumb, dumb, dumb.

Some other links:

Later: it starts — Officer Defends Arrest of Harvard Professor (pdf).

On Thursday, Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, clarified President Obama’s comments to a pool reporter on Air Force One. “Let me be clear: he was not calling the officer stupid, O.K.?” Mr. Gibbs said. He added that the president was simply saying that “at a certain point the situation got far out of hand, and I think all sides understand that.”

Didn’t our last President also need to have his words “explained” after the fact?

Also — see this: Obama Complains About the News Cycle but Manipulates It, Worrying Some. Moreover, there’s at least one person at the New York Times who thinks it *was* a political move — President Obama, Professor Gates and the Cambridge Police

This was no exceptionalist rant. Speaking to Mr. Robinson, the president used the first-person plural revealingly when he said: “I do think it is important for the African-American community, in its diversity, to stay true to one core aspect of the African-American experience, which is we know what it’s like to be on the outside.”

[...] People who have heretofore viewed Mr. Obama as a “postracial” abstraction were no doubt surprised by these remarks. This could be because they were hearing him fully for the first time.

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