Obama's Moral Cowardice

By Weisberg, Jacob | Newsweek, September 13, 2010 | Go to article overview

Obama's Moral Cowardice


Weisberg, Jacob, Newsweek


Byline: Jacob Weisberg

The president needs to find his principles.

Barack Obama's redecoration of the Oval Office includes a nice personal touch: a carpet ringed with favorite quotations from Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, both Presidents Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King Jr. The King quote, in particular, has become a kind of emblem for him: "The arc of the moral Universe is long, but it bends toward justice." For all the carping about his every move, the only big problem with the Obama presidency is the gap between what's written on his rug, and what's under it--the distance between the president's veneration of moral leadership past and his failure, so far, to exhibit much of it in the present.

Obama has had numerous chances to assert leadership on values questions this summer: Arizona's crude anti-immigrant law, the battle over Prop 8 and gay marriage, and the backlash against what Fox News persists in calling the "Ground Zero mosque." These battles raise fundamental questions of national identity, liberty, and individual rights. When Lindsey Graham argues for rewriting the Constitution to eliminate the birthright-citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment, or Newt Gingrich proposes a Saudi standard for the free exercise of religion, they're taking positions at odds with America's basic ideals. But Obama's instinctive caution has steered him away from casting these questions as moral or civil-rights issues. On none of them has he shown anything resembling courage.

In responding to the fight over the mosque, Obama has been characteristically legalistic and technical. At an iftar dinner he hosted at the White House, the president supported the right of Muslims "to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan"--itself a too picky allowance. The next day, he hedged even further, telling reporters, "I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there." This sail-trimming, where a bold defense of freedom of worship was wanted, left it to the newly heroic Michael Bloomberg to instruct us, at his own iftar dinner in New York, that the issue was "a test of our commitment to American values."

With the Proposition 8 fight, Obama has fallen short in a different way, by his reluctance to join an emerging social consensus.

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