Saturday, July 12, 2008

Should People "Lay Off" Michelle Obama for Her "Proud" Comments?

On February 18, 2008, Michelle Obama -– the wife of Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama (IL) –- made the following comment at an event for her husband's campaign:

"For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback."

Later that day, at another campaign event, she said:

"For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country, and not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change."

Michelle Obama received a great deal of criticism for these statements, on the grounds that they seemed to assert that –- for the past 20 or so years -– there had been no reason to be proud of the U.S.

Prominently, the Tennessee Republican Party made an ad that contrasted Michelle Obama's comments with those of people saying that they were proud of the U.S., and explaining why.

Barack Obama's campaign offered several defenses of Michelle Obama's comments. Soon after Michelle Obama made the comments, campaign spokesman Bill Burton said:

"Of course Michelle is proud of her country, which is why she and Barack talk constantly about how their story wouldn't be possible in any other nation on Earth. What she meant is that she's really proud at this moment because for the first time in a long time, thousands of Americans who've never participated in politics before are coming out in record numbers to build a grassroots movement for change."

On May 19, 2008, in an interview with him and his wife, Barack Obama strongly criticized the Tennessee GOP ad:

BARACK OBAMA: Let me just interject on this. The GOP, should I be the nominee, I think can say whatever they want to say about me, my track record. ... I've been in public life for 20 years. I expect them to pore through everything that I've said, every utterance, every statement. And to paint it in the most undesirable light possible. That's what they do. ... But I do want to say this to the GOP. If they think that they're going to try to make Michelle an issue in this campaign, they should be careful. Because that I find unacceptable. ... The notion that you start attacking my wife, or my family -- Michelle is the most honest, the best person I know. She is one of the most caring people I know. She loves this country. And for them to try to distort or to play snippets of her remarks in ways that are unflattering to her I think is just low class. And I think most of the American people would think that as well. Whoever is in charge of the Tennessee GOP needs to think long and hard about the kind of campaign that they want to run and I think that's true for everybody, Democrat or Republican.

MICHELLE OBAMA: We're trusting that the American voters are ready to talk about the issues and not talking about the things that have nothing to do with making people's lives better.

BARACK OBAMA: But I also think these folks should lay off my wife.

Barack Obama again responded in an interview on June 17, 2008, and chastized his opponent, Republican Senator John McCain (AZ):

"This is unfortunately become a habit in our politics where anything's fair game, and we just make things up about people. If you think about Michelle, I mean here's somebody who's done everything right. She grew up in modest means. She grew up in a nuclear family. Her parents looked after her. She went to college on a scholarship. She's worked hard for everything that she has. ... She is the best mother I know. She has made repeated sacrifices on behalf of her family and has said that her children and her husband are her number one priority. ... So the fact that people have tried to make her a target, based essentially on a couple of comments in which she was critical of what's happening to our American dream and the enormous difficulties that people are experiencing -- the difficulties that she hears directly as she is traveling across the country, I think is really distressing. And you know I've said publicly before, and I'll say it again: I think families are off limits. I would never consider making Cindy McCain a campaign issue, and if I saw people doing that -- I would speak out against it. And the fact that I haven't seen that from John McCain I think is a deep disappointment."

Responding on her own to the criticism, Michelle Obama on June 18, 2008, said this on the TV show, The View:

"I take [the criticism] in stride. It's a part of this process -- we're not new to politics, but just let me tell you, of course I'm proud of my country. Nowhere but in America could my story be possible. ... I'm a girl that grew up in the south side of Chicago. My father was a working-class guy, worked a shift all his life, and because of his hard work he sent not just me but my brother to Princeton. ... Just imagine the pride that my parents, who didn't go to college, felt, that they could, through their own hard work and sacrifice, have us achieve things that they could never imagine. So, I am proud of my country, without a doubt. I think, what, when I talked about it in my speech, that I was talking about was having a pride in the political process. People are just engaged in this election in a way that we haven't seen in a long time."

There's a lot going on in this episode that needs to be addressed.

First of all, Michelle Obama's initial comment -- that she was proud of the U.S. for the first time in her adult life -- is certainly open for criticism. She says that the comment was meant with respect to the U.S. political process. Even so, many people would argue that, over the past 20-25 years, there's been at least a few occasions to be proud of the U.S. political process. Her assertion that there are no such occasions -- assuming she is going to stand by that assertion -- requires defending.

Michelle Obama's comment about not being proud of her country could be given a charitable interpretation: probably, she just meant to say that she was very proud of her country at this point in time, and in her enthusiasm overstated the case to the point of saying that it was the first time there was any reason to be proud. If that's the case, then she should simply admit it and back off of the claim that this is the first time in 20-25 years that there's been a reason to be proud of the U.S. political system.

Unfortunately, not only did Michelle Obama fail to do that in her appearance on The View, she went on to make another questionable assertion: that "nowhere but in America could my story be possible". Is that really true? (Burton made a similar statement about both the Obamas.) Is there really no other country today where a person with working-class parents can go on to receive an education at a top-notch school and enjoy success similar to hers? That sounds like another overstatement on Michelle Obama's part. Again, in the name of charitable interpretation, she probably just meant to express that she has been proud of her country for a long time, but in her enthusiasm overstated the case to the point of saying no other country allows the children of working-class parents to succeed as she has. And, again, the best way for her to respond to this is to admit she went a bit overboard and retract what she said as an exaggeration.

Second, Barack Obama mischaracterized his wife's critics. She was not being criticized for -- as he says -- being "critical of what's happening to our American dream and the enormous difficulties that people are experiencing"; rather, she was criticized for saying there was no reason to be proud of the U.S. (or, the U.S. political process) over the past 20-25 years. I don't recall anyone saying anything like "Michelle Obama is wrong for saying that Americans are facing enormous difficulties" economically, or in the political process, or otherwise. If there is such an instance, Barack Obama should name it. Otherwise, it's unacceptable for him to try to dismiss criticism by distorting it.

(This is not the first time Barack Obama has done this. As noted previously on the Civil Debate Page, when Barack Obama was criticized for saying that midwesterners "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations", he responded by insisting that he was being attacked for saying that some people are bitter about their economic situation. But no one had said any such thing. In fact, he was being attacked for suggesting that the midwesterners' bitterness explained their moral, political, and religious beliefs.)

Finally, Barack Obama's insistence that people "lay off" his wife is inappropriate. The families of political candidates should certainly be off limits if they're not politically active in the campaign (for instance, the Obama children). But Michelle Obama is publicly making political assertions and endorsements (in particular, in support of him). As such, her statements are fair game. It is completely legitimate for people to evaluate her assertions, just as it was legitimate for people to be critical of statements made by former President Bill Clinton while he was campaigning for his wife, Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY).

There are other issues to be addressed: in particular Barack Obama's claim that McCain should have spoken out in criticism of Michelle Obama's attackers, and that the Republicans will "paint [Obama's record] in the most undesirable light possible". I will save that for a subsequent post.

Suffice to say, both of the Obamas have thrown up obstacles to a civil, productive debate in this episode: Michelle Obama has made some false statements (or, at least, statements sorely in need of defense); Barack Obama has misrepresented the people criticizing his wife; and Barack Obama has made an unreasonable demand that his wife's political statements be above criticism.

No comments: