As on previous occasions at this site, this is not a rhetorical question.  I don’t know the answer.  And, of course, I don’t mean should the President be a moral person.  The question is whether the ultimate political leader in our democratic system should also be one who focuses our national attention on the shortcomings of our society in humanity and justice.

For example: we have a growing number of homeless children.  Over 90% of the students in a California grade school were homeless according to a recent news story.  One in five American children do not have any health care.  Well over ten percent of employable people cannot find work.  Many elderly people have lost their homes.  My friend Bill Shore’s hunger relief organization Share Our Strength regularly documents the huge number of children who don’t begin to have adequate diets.  Afghan and Iraq veterans are living in public shelters or on the streets.  The evidence is overwhelming of a great gap between what our society ought to be and what it actually is on the moral scale.

Many conservative people accept deprivation as a fact of life and assume private charity (“a thousand points of light”) will take care of the poor and needy.  The more cruel ones believe the poor are poor by choice due to ignorance, sloth, or having an unlucky number in the lottery of life.  Many of the rest of us, liberal or otherwise, take our religious teachings seriously and believe we have a duty as a society to care for each other.

But should the President point out the gap between what is and what ought to be?  And if he or she does, will that be considered the kind of moralistic “preaching” that got leaders like Woodrow Wilson and Jimmie Carter into trouble?  Though he never became President, Robert Kennedy assumed this kind of role in forcing the nation to face poverty in the South and racial discrimination across our society.  He has been respected, even revered, more in death than in life for doing this.

President Obama has walked a fine line on this matter.  Many thought his race, together with his record of social activism, might cause him to be a voice of conscience.  At his finest moments he has done so. But a struggling economy, widespread conflict over the role of government in our society, and a hard right opposition have forced him into the role of bargaining over what is instead of what out to be.

We must hold out the hope that the better angels of his nature will come to rest upon his burdened shoulders and he will lift up a prophetic voice that calls America to the highest standard of social justice and national morality.  Now is the hour, and it is not too late.

8 Responses to “Should the President Be a Moral Voice?”

  1. Debbie Lackowitz Says:

    Thank you Senator Hart. Thoughtful and insightful. And it IS prudent to wonder if, in the past, ‘moralizing’ caused previous President’s (Jimmy Carter) political downfalls. Yes, we all remember Mr. Carter’s ‘malaise’ speech. But was it actually ‘wrong’? I don’t think so. It’s about US really. Egotistical, maybe. But it was us (as a nation) that said we don’t want to hear this. Give us ‘morning in America’, please. But we also didn’t heed Mr. Carter on energy independence as well. He was prophetic. And if we had listened, can you imagine where we’d be today. Way better, I think! But that’s democracy for you. The PEOPLE choose. And we did. Well, I didn’t actually! And what did we get? Well, after 30 years (the election of 1980), we’re not only in an economic mess, but we’re in even worse shape on dealing with climate change as well. And the price of oil and our ‘carbon footprint’ is all related to that. Can we change it? Of COURSE we can. We said ‘yes we can’ in 2008. To what? That’s the question. But as I look at it, President Obama has not delivered. And I really don’t think it was because he didn’t WANT to. He couldn’t. Not with the forces working against him. One man? Against all that? Right now, he just wants to keep his job so he can keep our ‘ship of state’ afloat! Let us hope…..

  2. Gary Hart: Should the President Be a Moral Voice? Says:

    [...] visit Senator Hart's blog at: Matters of Principle.   This Blogger's Books from Under The Eagle's Wing: A National [...]

  3. Leon Galindo Says:

    Mr. Hart, thankyou. As many of your reflections, thoughtful, deep, important, timely. As the months and years ahead of us go by faster and faster, and as the apparently increasingly alarming and disconcerting turn of social, politica, and environemental events force human beings in all nations to increasingly look into their own hearts and at the world around them, asking questions like these –and answering them accurately– will become increasingly vital. Perhaps though, the question should be expanded to all citizens, and not only of the US but of the world. Should we all become not only voices, but active moral agents…?

  4. Michael Says:

    A moral president would be one who addressed the unemployment crisis, called for banks to renegotiate underwater mortgages so even more families don’t land out on the street; S/he’d be one who provided a plan for bringing back good-paying jobs to this country so the middle class no longer has to live paycheck to paycheck or on recycled debt. Oh, yeah, how about an affordable health care system that has as its priority taking care of sick people instead of providing dividends to shareholders, or a college education that doesn’t saddle a person with back-breaking debt for the rest of their lives? I could go on and on, but what’s the point? By those standards we neither have a moral president, nor are we likely to have one in our lifetimes.

  5. Jim Engelking Says:

    On election night 2008, in Grant Park, President-elect Obama reminded all Americans that his election meant that we had the opportunity to change our nation’s policies, but that it would take a long time and be a difficult effort, requiring us to work together.

    Have we upheld our end of the bargain? If not, how can we blame President Obama for not accomplishing all he intended in just 2 1/2 years?

    Should he lead us in recognition of our common humanity? Yes. How else wre we to be a people? How else are we to be united? In my opinion, he has not been “forced” to relinquish any of his promises to us. To the extent he has backed away, it has been his choice. His challenge is to realize that he called us to action, and that we need him to do his part—lead.

    Had Bobby Kennedy survived and been elected in 1968, we could have known how much he walked the talk. He is not a useful comparison. Jimmy Carter is a better one. In his case, as in the case of President Obama, it was his own party who let him down. It takes real political courage to make real change in America. A President cannot do it alone, but he can set the tone. In reminding us that we are all equal humans, each with the same inalienable rights, he is leading, not “preaching.”

    Morality is doing the right thing. Do we have what it takes to make it happen?

  6. Stephen D. Pillow Says:

    Senator Hart,
    Isn’t it the responsibility of all persons to be truly moral and ethical? Is this not the foundation upon which all true religion is based? The problem that confronts religion is how to teach these virtues to its adherents. Far too often, a religion will resort to a reward and punishment system that occurs AFTER the person is dead, i.e. Heaven or Hell and incorporates some sort of an escape clause that can excuse behavior that does not comply with these expectations i.e. forgiveness. Therefore, individuals are not truly responsible for each and every act that they commit.
    People need to understand the benefits of moral and ethical behavior in and of itself. Treat ALL people the way you want to be treated. This is a teaching of all major religions regardless of race, ethnicity, creed, gender, or age. Too often governments take on the mantle of religious righteousness and convince the governed (us) that they (we) have a moral and ethical right to treat others (them) in a manner other than the way they (we) would want to be treated. My point is twofold. 1) Yes, the President (and any and all leaders of all countries) should be a moral voice. 2) However, mankind has yet to establish an acceptable and agreed upon definition and understanding of what constitutes moral and ethical behavior, whether within a religious or secular context. Until such time as the latter occurs, the former is not a realistic possibility. This does not mean that the President is excused from being the moral voice for and of the United States of America. It just means that he will have to make a decision upon his own as to what is moral and ethical and be prepared to withstand the criticism for making his chosen stand from both within his own country as well as from without.

  7. Brendan O'Connor Says:

    I definitely think the president should be a moral voice–boy do we need it, thanks for the thoughtful post.

  8. Mary Fran Says:

    Acting upon a “duty as a society to care for each other” is not something exclusive to people who follow “religious” teachings.

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