The President of the United States’ vigil on the Sandy Hook elementary school shootings Sunday night was very good, very comforting and very powerful. It listed by name the teachers, calling them heroes, and respected the idealism and strength of youth, the steadfastness of the community of Newtown. It had strong Christian overtones, but they were not unilateral or exclusive.
He alluded to Jesus’ protection of children and listed the names of the younger victims. “God has called them all home," he said, before beginning a prayer. In an analogy of raising a child and the difficulties of parenthood, Mr. Obama described the need to impart self-reliance and confidence. However, he focused on the help of a community, a nation, and their responsibilities for every child: "they're all our parents; they are all our children."
"Can we truly say as a nation that we are meeting our obligations? Can we honestly say that we are doing enough to keep our children - all of them - safe from harm...to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?...The answer is no."
He offers a seemingly simple series of questions: why are we here? What gives our life meaning?
In this episode, Obama acts as both a spiritual leader and the president of the United States. In a manner very similar to the expectations on the presidential nominees around the time of Hurricane Sandy’s touchdown on the East Coast of the United States, a politically elected leader has offered comfort and conciliation to a wounded community.
And while the President’s message is spiritual (and his performance as a pastor would likely mirror his electoral success) it is politically opportunistic to speak to the people of Newtown in such a manner. By himself making the statement to the nation, he self-focuses attention when that attention belongs to someone else.
This episode’s flaw is that it obscures the outpouring of empathy from the rest of society.
Instead of claiming the voice of a nation, a leader should call for the voices of a nation to be heard. Instead of speaking to the people of Sandy Hook and of Newtown, he should use his influence to (at most) organize others – the community of the American “nation” – may voice their condolences. Even then, demonstrations of moral support from the mourning society ought to be independent of the government.
It was for Obama’s speech that the NBC’s coverage of its popular “Sunday Night Football” was halted. Although he made vague allusions (“we must change…re-evaluate our worldly objectives”) to policy, his speech was nothing more than a media publicity event, willfully aided by an association of news providers clinging to every word he has to say.
That society (using news coverage as a proxy) hangs onto a leader’s every action is an anachronism. Western civilization does not exist in such dependence on elites as in a theocracy or absolute monarchy. With growing criticism of private media coverage now possible, one can demand something new – something more.
Further, while the people of Newtown – and hundreds of millions of Americans (and non-Americans) the world over – may think it “good” and “right” that the President offer his spiritual thoughts (for he is and ought to be a well-respected person), this is a misconception of democracy. The president does not exist as a moral authority.
By appearing as a caring, loving, “guardian of the people” figure, Mr. Obama benignly portrays himself as someone who puts the interests of his polity first. Whether this passivity is a politically calculated move to which Americans may identify, or not, it is not in the President’s role to provide this kind of support. Realizing that the moment at hand is for grievances, a proclamation of policy would be inappropriate – and so the president reserves this for later (the next day, as it turns out.
This isn’t so much a question of the President of the United States as it is a question of political leaders claiming authority in other areas of society. The role of the president of any government does not de jure include the comforting of its citizens.
Speaking to the victims, coming up with solutions and preventions; is his job – not a massively televised speech on spirituality. The leader’s condolences, while welcomed, should be private; not an act of publicity.