Arguing With Himself

One of the more irritating things about disagreeing with President Obama is that you suspect he can make your case better than you can.  That he knows exactly where you’re coming from, that he empathizes with your point of view, and worst of all, that he therefore has prepared the perfect counterargument to your most deeply-held beliefs.

This was never a problem when George W. Bush was president.  At least in public, Obama’s immediate predecessor professed not to care one whit about how and why his intellectual adversaries viewed the world as they did.  As grating as this often was to such critics, it at least offered a certain comforting clarity:  Bush believed what he believed, he was never going to change his mind, and that was that.

By contrast, Obama—the professor and former editor of Harvard Law Review—seemingly is forever weighing both sides of every issue, both in private and in public.  Even when he ultimately takes a firm stand, as his job requires him to do, he makes it plain that he understands the point of view of those in the opposing dugout, and that he values their opinions as legitimate and worth hearing.

This fact about our sitting commander-in-chief has been well-established during his first five years in office, but it comes into increasingly sharper focus in a sprawling new profile by David Remnick in the current issue of the New Yorker, in which Obama grants all sorts of points to the other side even as he defends his administration’s policies as strongly as ever before.

Most of the time, this habit of ideological accommodation is simply a byproduct of the president’s background in law and academia—worlds in which one must all the time play devil’s advocate and never be too certain about one’s rightness on any point, if only for the sake of getting along with one’s peers and not coming off as irretrievably arrogant.

At other times, however, I wonder whether Obama’s rhetorical hedging serves a more calculated and cynical political purpose:  Namely, to provide him the wiggle room to change his mind later on down the road, without appearing like a rank hypocrite.  I wonder as well, in some such cases, whether he has already changed his mind privately and is merely laying the groundwork for the moment when he will summon the nerve to say so publicly.

The Rosetta Stone for this theory was Obama’s flip-flop on gay marriage, and he may well be preparing the same stunt on legalized marijuana.

As you will recall, the president officially endorsed same-sex marriage in May 2012, although many suspected he secretly backed the idea already.  Indeed, in the New Yorker profile, Obama discloses to Remnick that it’s “fair to say that I may have come to that realization slightly before I actually made the announcement.”  As Remnick notes, the evidence would suggest that “slightly before” actually means “16 years before,” since Obama explicitly endorsed gay unions in a Chicago newspaper questionnaire in 1996, when he was running for the Illinois State Senate.

Even apart from the questionnaire, Obama always framed his views on the subject in a way that allowed him to reverse himself without appearing to abandon his original stated principles.  Asked to explain his position in years past, he floated the usual buzzwords like “tradition” and “faith” to justify withholding marriage from homosexuals, but always also extolled the need to treat everyone as equal before the law.

In short, his official opposition to gay marriage was half-hearted at best, and quite possibly phony from the start.  Political opportunism as usual.

On marijuana today, the president makes it clear to Remnick that he opposes its full legalization, saying of pot-smoking, “It’s not something I encourage, and I’ve told my daughters I think it’s a bad idea, a waste of time, not very healthy.”

Yet he spends just as much time—more, in fact—musing about the myriad injustices of America’s current anti-marijuana policies, particularly the fact that a disproportionate number of those imprisoned for smoking weed are either black, Hispanic or poor.

Says Obama, “[W]e should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing.”  Does this sound like a guy who will still be defending the continued prohibition of marijuana, say, three or four years from now?  I may be wrong, but I would have to say no.

Indeed, I would even hazard to guess his opposition to legalized pot is as false today as was that to gay marriage pre-2012, and that it is only a matter of time before circumstances compel him to publicly abandon a sentiment he does not truly believe in his heart.

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