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.

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15 Comments

Capt. Call in New Mexico said:

Peggy, you were doing just fine until you came to story about Cox and Kennedy. What you quote Kennedy as saying may be true; but that does not make it right. That special grace may be nice, but what Kennedy said was hogwash. It was nonsense. The decision handed down by the Supreme Court in 'Engle vs Vitale' was a betrayal of the American people. It was an unconstitutional decision, and a terrible attack on the freedom of speech in America. As usual, conservatives for the most part, just rolled over and played dead. Tragic.

Saturday, April 7, 2012 at 12:29 AM

Jeremy said:

"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."Peggy, dearest... I hate to break the news to you, but Obama has been in full campaign mode for many months now.There are a few good points in this article (unusual, considering the author), but, really, it's just plain silly to expect anything but the low road from the O-team and his enablers in the press.

Saturday, April 7, 2012 at 12:46 AM

Dioneikes in Colorado said:

Peggy, For a moment I thought you were referring to Teddy Kennedy. He didn't have any grace, only drunkeness and murdered interns (Mary Jo Kopechne). Obama only has lies and Bull Sh*t to try to lead Americans around by the nose. Now granted there are a few that are stupid enough to believe him, but I'm hoping that they are in the minority.

Saturday, April 7, 2012 at 4:32 PM

Geoff Wittig said:

Interesting. Ms. Noonan appears to be offended that, after years of bending over backwards in an effort to reach out to Republican politicians and their corporate masters, Obama has finally had enough. He's finally stating what all sentient beings should be able to see: that the Republicans stand firmly with the 1%, and will defend their privileges and 15% 'carried interest' tax loophole to the end of time. That trickle-down economics has destroyed middle class prosperity every time it's been tried. And that Paul Ryan's delusional 'budget' is a recipe for America becoming a banana republic. The Republican emperors have no clothes. Obama just pointed it out. And Noonan still refuses to see it.

Monday, April 9, 2012 at 8:31 AM

Thomas Long said:

So, Peggy, you're shocked, SHOCKED, that the President has entered campaign mode 6 months before the election? Please, spare us your breathless debutante's consternation. We all know this isn't the first presidential election of your adulthood.It's possible that the President has finally discovered that glossing over the obvious, implacable obstruction and hatred of the Republicans hasn't helped either him or the country. The completely cynical and political stance of the Rovian Republican party was made obvious to all during the 2004 hate-fest convention. Casting the opposition as traitors and reprobates is practically a Republican patent.

Monday, April 9, 2012 at 9:00 AM

11thCavVet said:

The GOP richly deserves an "unusual and unleavened assault". While the Dems and the rest of the country have been attempting to deal with the national hangover we inherited from the last GOP go-round, the Repubs have spent the bulk of their energy on resurrecting anti-environmental legislation, impeding legitimate voters, bashing unions, raising secret money, threatening a new war with Iran, bringing back the Palin drill-baby-drill energy policy, and making birth control more difficult to obtain. Congratulations Republicans on your stunning intellectual regression!

Monday, April 9, 2012 at 9:12 AM

drdnc said:

After an open microphone at the last Republican convention revealed Ms Noonan's complete lack of public candor and her eagerness to lie in support of Republicans, why would anyone believe anything she says or writes for public consumption?http://www.politicususa.com/Murphy-Noonan-Trash-Palin/

Monday, April 9, 2012 at 9:31 AM

TuffsNotEnuff said:

Peggy, you have missed it that the cornerstone of current Republican policy is the Paul Ryan budget. President Obama focuses on this disaster.Ryan fantasizes gifting $4.6-trillion in tax cuts, piled on top of Bush tax cuts -- adding another $200,000++ per capita for the 1%ers. 14-million people get dropped from Medicare. Ryan also has a List-A-Sketch borrowed from the Joe McCarthy Museum, where he details "tax loop holes" he can close to balance his $4.6-trillion in tax cuts. But any time somebody looks at it, these loop holes disappear.Maybe you can do better justifying the GOP running a Stake President from America's largest cult ??? Yes, Peggy, the word is "cult." And that's your candidate. The Party of Reagan... not.

Monday, April 9, 2012 at 10:01 AM

B W Scott said:

Peegy Noonan claims president Obama is dividing by pointing out the policies of the GOP favor the rich and affluent at the exspense of the less well off. She does not even prtend to argue the policies benefit the less affluent.

Monday, April 9, 2012 at 10:08 AM

mac daddy said:

Hey Mac,Marxist? You still repeating what Glen Beck tells you to? The repub party is a sad caricature of what it once was. It's been taken over by the willfully ignorant, idiots and fundamentalists.Why don't you spend two more years babbling about President Obama's birth certificate?The loonies who run the repub party now have Ronald Reagan rolling over in his grave.

Monday, April 9, 2012 at 10:10 AM

Trotter76 said:

Oh, mac, you are predictable if nothing else. No comment on the critiques of Republicans, just the same ol' cannards about the "librul agenda" sure to "bankrupt our country". How about Paul Ryan's attempt to bankrupt our country through massive tax cuts to the already rich? No comment, I'm sure. As for Peggy here, Obama led out of the gate with an open hand only to have it slapped way too many times by the R's. Now that he's learned that the "loyal" opposition has no interest in helping the country if it means Obama gets one iota of credit for it, he has called them out for their obstruction. Peggy says, "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." As a stance? No, as a reality. You spit in his face a thousand times and expect him to keep coming back to "ameliorate differences or join together"? No. You mess with the bull, you get the horns. But you can't seem to take a dose of your own medicine.

Monday, April 9, 2012 at 11:52 AM

Thomas Long said:

In reply to mac, I have to say that calling the president a Marxist charlatan is as unconvincing as was, say, calling Bush a Nazi murderer. It's sort of disqualifying. Obama never left the campaign trail? Who does? Although I must say that, as a Democrat, Obama's complete indifference to the 2010 election was extremely frustrating. As I recall the first few months of 2009 were spent by pundits like Ms. Noonan wondering if the Republican Party could survive. Obama personally resuscitated the party by taking them seriously and acting as if their ideas and opinions had any merit, which he really shouldn't have.

Monday, April 9, 2012 at 12:27 PM

Poor Richard said:

Pretty Hilarious!Your 'gentle white woman' voice permeates this, but the coup de grace was terming our President as "menacing" (!).Yes, our President is "menacing". Most likely because he's black. Bush was never menacing (when starting two massive wars that helped wreck our (and other) country. Reagan wasn't menacing when he was trading arms to Iran and keeping Americans hostage there for his own political purposes.See, Mr. President, what you need to do to win peggy over is be less...well, less 'black'.Perhaps, Mr. President, you could wear white-face? Or maybe keep your voice up high like a white guy instead of down low like a hoodlum?If you make these changes I'm sure miss peggy wouldn't have to clutch at her pearls when you speak again.Sheesh.

Monday, April 9, 2012 at 1:01 PM

John S said:

mac,I resemble that inaccuracy in your reply to 11th Cav.Cavalry ain't Infantry. Combat Arms, Yes. But there's a reason their cord is Yellow, while mine was a peaceful baby blue.I would appreciate your correction. No pology needed. Your correction will be appology enuf.Thank U in advance 4 your correction. JS, DAV, USArmy, Infantry.

Monday, April 9, 2012 at 5:02 PM

Marc said:

"Please keep comments civil and brief."Mac,Did you not see this before you posted? Useful idiots? Marxist zealots?Are you unable to make a point without insults?"the infantry aren't the sharpest tools in the shed"How would you know? Are you a veteran or just a keyboard commando?

Monday, April 9, 2012 at 6:12 PM