President Barack Obama has long been criticized for his reluctance to involve himself in the business of Congress, so often declining to march down Pennsylvania Avenue to personally harangue members of the House and Senate to pass a particular bill, as past presidents have been known to do.
This charge, while sometimes exaggerated, is true enough.
Considering the president’s general aloofness on matters of American governance, it is rather curious that he has no such reticence on matters of the American culture, into which he seems positively itching to dive.
There he was, mere hours after a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman of second-degree murder, issuing an official statement reading, in part, “The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy. Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America.”
This was not the first time the commander-in-chief chimed in on the murder trial that captured the nation’s imagination. In March, as coverage of the case reached saturation levels, the president intoned, “When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids, and I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this […] If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.”
We may well ask: Why is the leader of the free world commenting about a matter that is the business of local Florida law enforcement? What concern is the killing of one private citizen by another private citizen to the most powerful man on Earth, that he cannot help but offer his own personal musings about it?
But then, we know the answer to these queries, at least in this particular case. Obama insinuated himself into the Trayvon Martin conversation because he views it as a “teachable moment” for America on the issue of gun violence. It is, in his words, an opportunity to “ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence,” and to figure out “how we can prevent future tragedies like this.”
Indeed, you might say that, by exploiting a local incident to push his national agenda, Obama is doing culturally what he sometimes fails to do legislatively: Claiming the moral high ground. If this is what it takes to govern, he might argue, then so be it.
All the same, this does not make the general practice of presidential involvement in ostensibly low-level news events any less dubious.
The question we must ask is simply this: Being a figurehead, not just an individual, is the president not obligated to position himself above and slightly removed from the friction of daily life in the United States? Should he not recuse himself from matters that do not require his attention, in the interest of at least appearing to be disinterested and objective?
Consider a slightly less serious example than Trayvon Martin: The NCAA tournament.
Every year while he has occupied the Oval Office, Obama has filled out his own March Madness bracket and broadcast it to the nation. (Indeed, his predictions have proved quite prescient.)
While he has every right to join the millions of his fellow Americans in this sacred spring ritual—as a lifelong basketball enthusiast, he presumably would be doing it anyway—I nonetheless wonder if it is not improper to do so at the White House desk. It somehow seems beneath the majesty of the office he presently holds.
What must it be like to be, say, a promising 19-year-old freshman point guard and be told the president of the United States has penciled your team in for a first round loss? It cannot feel great. It seems to me that the nation’s highest officeholder should have the courtesy to keep out of it.
To be the president—a one-man institution—is to surrender certain privileges for as long as your term endures. For instance, you cannot run out to the corner florist to buy a bouquet for your mistress (unless, of course, you are Michael Douglas in The American President). You cannot drive a car or drink to excess, nor can you call in sick because of a particularly splitting headache.
And you can’t offer your opinion on every last aspect of the American culture, no matter how persistently members of the press corps might ask for them. Some impulses ought to be resisted for the sake of old-fashioned propriety.
Sometimes, the most essential duty of the president is not to participate, but simply to preside.