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Is There a Core?

Richard Cohen, like many on the Left, is quite disturbed about the President-elect’s decision to invite Rick Warren to perform the invocation at the inauguration. He goes so far as to call the President-elect, in essence, a moral coward:

The conventional thing to say is that Obama has a preacher problem — first the volcanic Jeremiah Wright and now the transparently anti-gay Warren. But the real problem has nothing to do with ministers and everything to do with Obama’s inability or unwillingness to be a moral leader. Sooner or later, he just might have to stand for something.

This was apparent to me almost a year ago when I reported that Obama’s church, the Trinity United Church of Christ, had given a major award to Louis Farrakhan, the anti-Semitic leader of the Nation of Islam. The award was presented in Wright’s name and featured in a cover story in the church’s magazine, Trumpet. When I asked the Obama campaign about this, I was told that Obama himself did not agree with Farrakhan. What a relief!

And what a joke. I never for a moment thought Obama viewed Farrakhan any differently from the way I do. But I also thought that as a U.S. senator, as a presidential candidate or even as a mere citizen, he had an obligation to denounce the award — maybe quit the church. Do something! He did nothing.

Well all those conservatives who were beside themselves because of then-candidate Barack Obama’s refusal for twenty years to walk out of Wright’s church or to denounce the domestic terrorist duo of Bernadine Dohrn and William Ayers can feel Cohen’s pain. Whether you agree with Cohen’s perspective on gay marriage and his indictment of Warren or not, he is indisputably right on this: President-elect Obama doesn’t draw moral distinctions on much of anything and he doesn’t operate from principle.

If that wasn’t clear after the myriad campaign flip-flops, the elevation of Hillary Clinton and many of her clique (after running against the Clinton “establishment”), the repudiation of his netroot foreign policy, the abandonment of his plans for a windfall profit tax (and likely his income tax hike), the inconsistent application of his “no lobbyist” rules, and his refusal to insist on an election to fill his former senate seat I’m not sure what it will take for the stars to fall from the eyes of his devoted fans. The gap between high flying rhetoric (e.g. reform, bottom-up democracy, change we can believe in) and his banal political motives isn’t narrowing with time.

Does this matter? On one level it doesn’t much matter now, with elections so far away, if the idealists are crushed. The Left isn’t going anywhere and his popularity with the public at large is sky-high. But, generally, principle is a good thing in a President. It keeps him from being continually blown off course, disappointing allies, confounding friends and foes and projecting, frankly, a fickleness that eventually paralyzes an administration. Perhaps there is in all the political zig-zagging a defined political philosophy and world view that will steady the ship of state when things get rough. We just haven’t seen it yet.

But the Warren episode does offer a lesson, quite apart from the particulars of gay marriage. It’s better to make clear early on in an administration what a President stands for — and it better be something more than getting along with everyone. That’s simply not going to happen. But a creeping sense that there is no there there –no moral core — might set in, unless the President proves his critics wrong. So far, all he has done is given ammunition to the critics who claim he lacks political and moral ballast.



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