A month ago in this space, I wrote about the fate of sloganeering in politics since the days of the New Deal and the Fair Deal and the New Frontier, arguing that modern advertising techniques in politics as elsewhere favor the content-free "image" over merely content-minimal slogans, which only generate controversy and court contradiction. Rhetoric is traditionally the art of public argument, but its contemporary transformation into the art of image-cultivation began long before the Obamites came on the scene. The politics of imagery and symbolism naturally goes together with the moralization of politics, about which I have also written before. More and more matters of public interest are framed in terms of good and bad, decent and indecent, right and wrong rather than wise or unwise, which is what the practical problems of governance most often boil down to. If you want to do something that is unwise — like passing Obamacare or cap and trade or not enforcing immigration laws — it makes it a lot easier if you can characterize the opposers of such things as bad or bigoted or indecent people.
But if rhetoric so often offers our President, like his predecessors, a cheap grace, you’d think he would a bit more skilled by now in using it gracefully. Over the weekend he got himself into a terrible rhetorical tangle. First he offered what, in its context, had to be seen (as my friend Byron York points out), and was seen by those who had been calling its opponents bigots, as a powerful endorsement of the Ground Zero mosque; then he said he had done no such thing; then he insisted he had not changed his mind between his first and second statements on the matter. Here’s how, according to Politico, he explained his apparent defense of the building of the mosque in lower Manhattan:
"In this country we treat everybody equally and in accordance with the law, regardless of race, regardless of religion," Obama told reporters Saturday when asked about his remarks at a White House dinner marking the start of Ramadan. "I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there," Obama continued. "I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about. And I think it’s very important as difficult as some of these issues are that we stay focused on who we are as a people and what our values are all about."
In other words, I insist on my right to take refuge in banality. No one questions "the right people have" to worship as they please. The question at issue is rather whether or not it is offensive to the sensibilities of ordinary Americans for the mosque to be built at this place, at this time — or, if you like, precisely the question of the wisdom of the decision to build it. On this he has nothing to say, though it is the actual question being debated all around him. It’s a characteristic "straw man" strategy to avoid controversy, a transparent attempt to comment without commenting.
Yet if it is Clintonian in its attempt to be on two sides at once, it is un-Clintonian in being a poor political move. It offers no corrective to the general impression generated by the apology tour of his first months in the presidency that he is anti-American in the way that so many in the post-Vietnam left have long given the impression of being — that is, not on the same side as the majority in its desire to think of our country as the greatest force for good in the world, the "City on a Hill" that President Reagan used to invoke. That was rhetorical too, of course, but it was rhetoric with a purpose. It "played" well, politically. President Obama’s rhetoric seems to be indulged in for its own sake, or for identifying himself with the anti-American left rather than the pro-American majority.
For Muslims are still seen by the majority as at least a somewhat alien presence in our midst — partly because of the terrorism and partly because they’re not very good at living side by side with Christians in the countries where Muslims are in the majority. The obvious rhetorical strategy for any president to deal with this mere fact of life is to reassure people about the harmlessness of the majority of Muslims while dealing severely with the terrorists. If Muslims show signs of not being harmless by, say, the deliberately provocative act of building a mosque at or near the site of the World Trade Center, destroyed by Islamic terrorists on September 11, 2010, you either stop them (preferably without any public fanfare) or, if you are unable or unwilling to do that, pretend it is no big deal. The last thing you want to do is to be seen as taking the side of the provocateurs against the feelings of ordinary, non-Muslim Americans, which must be why President Obama attempted to backtrack.
Yet how easy for him to have said that, although we fully support the rights of our Muslim citizens to worship where and when and how they wish, it sends the wrong signal to allow a massive mosque to be built in that place and in this time. It would, he could say, be "construed by some as being provocative" — as it already obviously is — and the moderate course is therefore to remove the cause of provocation by building somewhere else. Yet he doesn’t do this, perhaps because it suggests (and rightly so) an accommodation with if not a championing of a kind of rhetorical American patriotism that simply makes him, and many other liberals, uncomfortable. If Paris is worth a mass, Washington ought to be worth a bit of flag-waving now and then. It would be harmless to him or his agenda and a positive benefit to Muslims who care about getting along with their non-Muslim neighbors. It would be understood by most of the liberal base, as a merely symbolic gesture, a pretense of patriotism, to placate the mob. It would almost certainly do his slumping poll numbers a world of good. But he simply can’t bring himself to do it. I wonder why?