Why Is President Obama Lecturing Me?

The president is right on the merits, wrong on the tone.

President Barack Obama speaks alongside people who will benefit from health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act, as well speaks about the government shutdown in the Rose Garden of the White House, October 1, 2013.
National Journal
Ron Fournier
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Ron Fournier
Oct. 2, 2013, 5:43 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama ac­cused Re­pub­lic­ans on Tues­day of launch­ing an “ideo­lo­gic­al cru­sade” to hold the “eco­nomy host­age” over “ideo­lo­gic­al” and “reck­less” de­mands to dis­mantle his health care law. “In oth­er words,” he said, “they de­man­ded ransom just for do­ing their jobs.”

Sev­er­al read­ers who sup­port Obama said they were dis­ap­poin­ted by the tone of his re­marks. One from Ohio wrote, “He needs to chill. He looks de­fens­ive and has no reas­on to be.” An in­de­pend­ent voter in Michigan wrote, “He seems like an angry kid.” A Mary­land Demo­crat com­plained, “I love the man, but why is he yelling at me?”

I had a sim­il­ar re­ac­tion listen­ing to the re­marks shortly after writ­ing a column in de­fense of Obama’s po­s­i­tion.

Is the pres­id­ent lec­tur­ing, be­littling Amer­ic­ans right now? Or the GOP House? Comms is­sue: Voters watch­ing might not know dif­fer­ence

— Ron Fourni­er (@ron_­fourni­er) Oc­to­ber 1, 2013

An oth­er­wise sol­id ar­gu­ment can be un­der­cut by the words a pres­id­ent chooses and the tone that greases them. It’s not enough to be right as a lead­er if you in­sult voters with your right­eous­ness. It’s not just Obama. Seni­or White House ad­viser Dan Pfeif­fer re­cently said the White House is op­posed to “ne­go­ti­at­ing with people with a bomb strapped to their chests,” an ir­re­spons­ible and over­heated im­age.

The Re­pub­lic­an Party en­gin­eered this stale­mate and is likely to shoulder most of the blame. That is, un­less the Demo­crat­ic Party matches the GOP on pet­ti­ness, stub­born­ness, and dem­agoguery. Pres­id­ents Re­agan and Clin­ton had a way of at­tack­ing their rivals with a smile, mak­ing their point without mak­ing them­selves look smal­ler. Can Obama?

Twenty-six hun­dred words in­to a long-win­ded ad­dress, Obama took a breath and said, “Let me re­peat, I will not ne­go­ti­ate over Con­gress’ re­spons­ib­il­ity to pay bills it’s already racked up. I’m not go­ing to al­low any­body to drag the good name of the United States of Amer­ica through the mud just to re­fight a settled elec­tion or ex­tract ideo­lo­gic­al de­mands.” Ten sen­tences later, he ad­ded, “We’re bet­ter than this. Cer­tainly, the Amer­ic­an people are a lot bet­ter than this.”

Yes, they are. And they might ex­pect a bet­ter tone from their pres­id­ent.

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