This morning, the Washington Post’s Perry Bacon dug into an issue that often gets ignored: What happens when our famously cool and aloof president actually lets slip how he feels about something? Like, for example, when he thought he was safely off the record and he called artist Kanye West a jackass in front of television cameras. Or when he mentioned that he has a lot of gay and lesbian couple friends, but instead of using that fact as a defense, said that the friendships were actually actively changing his opinion. The president is not a mayor — he’s not required to shoot reactions from his hip. In a way, we expect not to know how he feels. What he thinks? Sure. What he wants? Of course. But a president’s “feelings” so often come across as political theater. So then, when we’re confronted with a personal sentiment from Obama, particularly a controversial one, a stir is almost always kicked up. Like, for example, what happened after it was revealed that Obama called Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie to congratulate him on player Michael Vick’s success this season, and for giving the former dogfighter and convicted felon a second chance to begin with.
The Twitterverse, and a broad segment of the punditocracy, reacted with outrage over the call. “Hey, every man deserves a second chance,” wrote allahpundit at HotAir. “Especially, I guess, if that man happens to be an MVP-caliber quarterback capable of generating untold millions in revenue for his franchise. On that note, my congratulations to America’s professional boxing associations for giving Mike Tyson a second chance after that rape conviction.”
“If President Obama wanted to praise the Eagles for giving Vick a second chance, the phone call would have been more appropriate when they originally signed him, not many months later amid great success,” wrote Morris W. O’Kelly at the Huffington Post. “It would seem the phone call was inextricably linked to Vick’s success, not the moral conscience of the Philadelphia Eagles organization.”
Mostly on Twitter, people were saying some variation on: “Prez.Obama is happy [Eagles] gave #MichaelVick a second chance. He time in prison is not enough.The animals he destroyed wont get 2nd chance!” That, or, “serious? Get to work obama, run the country.”
Obama, as an avid sports fan, is entitled to his opinion on a football player. In fact, he may well have let his enthusiasm for the sport get away from him in a private conversation (that surely he would have preferred to keep that way). The idea that this call somehow got in the way of actual governance is silly. Nonetheless, he should have known better — everything he says to a civilian will get out, in some way or another. And he may be cool as a cucumber, but he’s also a dog owner. He should certainly realize that people react differently to the death of adorable puppies than, say, the killing of grubby wild animals that are hunted, shot, and chased bleeding through woods and fields before they finally die of terror and confusion. (How many presidents have themselves been hunters?) The visual of what Michael Vick did not so long ago is just too perverse for most people to get past — even if they are football fans.
And his more considered critics are right — the Eagles didn’t give Vick a second chance out of the goodness of their hearts. It was a financial decision, and one that is paying off handsomely. Lincoln Financial Field isn’t exactly a halfway house.
So why say anything at all? Because maybe he actually believes it. Maybe he is grateful that Vick got a second chance, so that kids who may idolize him as an athlete will be taught something about redemption. So that people in jail might one day think they can be somebody again. Maybe he himself just likes to watch Vick play. After all, cinephiles stand behind Roman Polanski — is it so strange to expect differently of football fans (including Obama) and Vick?
Disagreeing with the president is a necessary and important part of American politics, especially on a heated issue like this. But there’s something to also be said for appreciating these brief revelations of Obama’s true feelings for what they are: some of the only genuine insights into our enigmatic, oft-withdrawn leader’s psyche that we ever get.