The Right Opinion

Oh, for Some Kennedyesque Grace

By Peggy Noonan · Apr. 7, 2012

Obama makes his campaign strategy clear. It’s divide and conquer.

These are things we know after President Obama’s speech Tuesday, in Washington, to a luncheon sponsored by the Associated Press:

The coming election fully occupies his mind. It is his subject matter now, and will be that of his administration. Everything they do between now and November will reflect this preoccupation.

He knows exactly what issues he’s running on and wants everyone else to know. He is not reserving fire, not launching small forays early in the battle. The strategy will be heavy and ceaseless bombardment. The speech announced his campaign’s central theme: The Republican Party is a radical and reactionary force arrayed in defense of one group, the rich and satisfied, while the president and his party struggle to protect the yearning middle class and preserve the American future.

This will be his campaign, minus only the wedge issues – the “war on women,” etc. – that will be newly deployed in the fall.

We know what criticisms and avenues of attack have pierced him. At the top of the speech he lauded, at some length and in a new way, local Catholic churches and social service agencies. That suggests internal polling shows he’s been damaged by the birth-control mandate. The bulk of the speech was devoted to painting Washington Republicans as extreme, outside the mainstream. This suggests his campaign believes the president has been damaged by charges that his leadership has been not center-left, but left. This is oratorical jujitsu: Launch your attack from where you are weak and hit your foe where he is strong. Mr. Obama said he does not back “class warfare,” does not want to “redistribute wealth,” and does not support “class envy.” It’s been a while since an American president felt he had to make such assertions.

The speech was an unusual and unleavened assault on the Republican Party. As such it was gutsy, no doubt sincere and arguably a little mad. The other party in a two-party center-right nation is anathema? There was no good-natured pledging to work together or find common ground, no argument that progress is possible. The GOP “will brook no compromise,” it is “peddling” destructive economic nostrums, it has “a radical vision” and wants to “let businesses pollute more,” “gut education,” and lay off firemen and cops. He said he is not speaking only of groups or factions within the GOP: “This is now the party’s governing platform.” Its leaders lack “humility.” Their claims to concern about the deficit are “laughable.”

The speech was not aimed at healing, ameliorating differences, or joining together. The president was not even trying to appear to be pursuing unity. He must think that is not possible for him now, as a stance.

There was a dissonance at the speech’s core. It was aimed at the center – he seemed to be arguing that to the extent he has not succeeded as president, it is because he was moderate, high-minded and took the long view – but lacked a centrist tone and spirit.

It was obviously not written for applause, which always comes as a relief now in our political leaders. Without applause they can develop a thought, which is why they like applause. In any case, he couldn’t ask a roomful of journalists to embarrass themselves by publicly cheering him. But I suspect the numbers-filled nature of the speech had another purpose: It was meant as a reference document, a fact sheet editors can keep on file to refer to in future coverage. “Jacksonville, Oct. 10 – GOP nominee Mitt Romney today charged that the U.S. government has grown under President Obama by 25%. The president has previously responded that in fact the size of government went down during his tenure.”

An odd thing about this White House is that they don’t know who their friends are. Or perhaps they know but feel their friends never give them enough fealty and loyalty. Either way, that was a room full of friends. And yet the president rapped their knuckles for insufficient support. In the Q-and-A he offered criticism that “bears on your reporting”: “I think that there is oftentimes the impulse to suggest that if the two parties are disagreeing, then they’re equally at fault and the truth lies somewhere in the middle.” An “equivalence is presented” that is unfortunate. It “reinforces … cynicism.” But the current debate is not “one of those situations where there’s an equivalence.” Journalists are failing to “put the current debate in some historical context.”

That “context,” as he sees it, is that Democrats are doing the right thing, Republicans the wrong thing, Democrats are serious, Republicans are “not serious.”

It was a remarkable moment. I’m surprised the press isn’t complaining and giving little speeches about reporting the facts without fear or favor.

I guess what’s most interesting is that it’s all us-versus-them. Normally at this point, early in an election year, an incumbent president operates within a rounded, nonthreatening blur. He’s sort of in a benign cloud, and then pokes his way out of it with strong, edged statements as the year progresses. Mr. Obama isn’t doing this. He wants it all stark and sharply defined early on. Is this good politics? It is unusual politics. Past presidents in crises have been sunny embracers.

The other day an experienced and accomplished Democratic lawyer spoke, with dismay, of the president’s earlier remarks on the ObamaCare litigation. Mr. Obama had said: “I’m confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress.” He referred to the court as “an unelected group of people” that might “somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law.”

It was vaguely menacing, and it garnered broad criticism. In the press it was characterized as a “brushback” – when a pitcher throws the ball close to a batter’s head to rattle him, to remind him he can be hurt.

The lawyer had studied under Archibald Cox. Cox, who served as John F. Kennedy’s Solicitor General, liked to tell his students of the time in 1962 when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Engel v. Vitale, a landmark ruling against school prayer.

The president feared a firestorm. The American people would not like it. He asked Cox for advice on what to say. Cox immediately prepared a long memo on the facts of the case, the history and the legal merits. Kennedy read it and threw it away. Dry data wouldn’t help.

Kennedy thought. What was the role of a president at such a time?

And this is what he said: We’re all going to have to pray more in our homes.

The decision, he said, was a reminder to every American family “that we can attend our churches with a good deal more fidelity,” and in this way “we can make the true meaning of prayer much more important in the lives of our children.”

He accepted the court’s decision, didn’t rile the populace, and preserved respect for the court while using its controversial ruling to put forward a good idea.

It was beautiful.

One misses that special grace.