The most revealing interview of the Barack Obama presidency involved a meeting of the minds between a clutch of YouTube stars and the Leader of the Free World. While most of the press attention focused on loopy comments by the likes of GloZell Green (who offered the president some of her signature green lipstick for his “first wife”), the significant portion of these exchanges came in response to a reasonably appropriate question from 19-year-old Bethany Mota. This one-time fourth place finisher on Dancing With the Stars has earned literally millions with popular videos giving her followers important advice on fashion and shopping. Sitting across from the President of the United States, she cheerfully acknowledged, “I never really followed politics that much” and then posed her question. “Why should the younger generation be interested in politics, and why should it matter to them?”
The president’s appalling inability to provide an even vaguely coherent or persuasive response highlights all the deepest problems of his unfocused and dangerously floundering second term. He began philosophically: “Well, basically politics is just how we organize ourselves as a society, y’know, how do we make decisions about how we live together.” With his interlocutor looking appropriately puzzled – he said nothing about why this should particularly matter to young people – the president then shifted to an embarrassing lie that any fact-checker could easily uncover. “So young people care about how college is paid for, well, the truth of the matter is that the reason we even have colleges is that at some point there were politicians who said, ‘y’know what? We should start colleges.’”
Of course this ignores the fact that the oldest and most prestigious colleges in both the United States and Europe were started by leaders of the church, not politicians. Harvard, Yale, Princeton were initially set up as seminaries to prepare young men for the clergy.
But a few moments later, the president, still searching for a reason that young Bethany (who apparently enjoys a flourishing career despite her lack of a college education) should care about government and came up with this unforgettable summary. “And so there’s no decision in our lives, basically, that isn’t touched in some way by the laws that we have,” said Barack Obama.
No decision in our lives not touched by laws? Fortunately, he’s wrong: I think my decision to write this column, or to try to go to bed early tonight to catch up on sleep, or to drive out to look at the sunset with my wife earlier this evening, all remain blessedly untouched by laws. All right, I get it: Obama could try to say that the word processor on which I’m typing only exists because of patents and regulation of commerce or that the mattress on which I hope to sleep requires governmental supervision so that it doesn’t poison me with radioactivity.
But isn’t that a wild stretch? And doesn’t the premise of “no decision in our lives not touched by laws” come across like the aspirational declaration of an ambitious totalitarian? In North Korea, where all decisions are best left in the hands of the all-knowing supreme leader, that summary of the role of politics might make sense but even Mr. Obama’s most ardent admirers don’t seem ready to grant him that sort of absolute power.
The best counter to the president’s chilling statement was provided by a brilliant lover of liberty, Dr. Samuel Johnson more than 200 years ago:
How small, of all that human hearts endure
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.
And one more statement by the mumbling president similarly violated Dr. Johnson’s wisdom. “Y’know, If you care about about an issue like, y’know, makin’ sure gays and lesbians and transgender persons are treated fairly,” he patiently explained, “well, laws on the books can make sure they’re not discriminated against.” Laws can “make sure” discrimination doesn’t exist? Would the president agree that some discrimination against African-Americans remains a factor in American life? Of course he would; he’s said so repeatedly. And yet the laws outlawing such discrimination have been on the books for nearly fifty years. Only the most doctrinaire progressive could entertain the idea that merely passing a law can permanently alter human behavior.
No, it’s not reasonable to assume that the president will deploy deep thoughts in a YouTube media event. But at least he might have offered more potent and effective encouragement for young people to engage in politics.
How about this, as an appropriate answer to the lovely Bethany? She wants to know why kids should concern themselves with politics? “Well, Bethany, most young people today have credit cards, don’t they? I know you do because I’ve seen your shopping videos.”
“So how would you feel if all of a sudden you starting getting credit card bills for tens of thousands of dollars for stuff that you never bought for yourself? It was actually some older people who you don’t even know who were running up your tab, leaving you to pay off at least $50,000 right now for stuff that they’re using. If that happened to you, wouldn’t you want to get involved and stop it? Well, that’s what’s happening right now to everyone in the younger generation because every single year our government spends a lot more than it takes in, and we’re just passing on that bill to you. You owed money before you were even born! That’s not fair. And if you want to help dig out from the mountain of debt, you’ve got to get involved in politics.”
A more effective response to a touchingly sincere question? Sure, but it would have required a very different president, and a very different direction for our country.
This column appeared at TruthRevolt.org on January 26, 2015.