It is insulting because it ostentatiously evades the question while giving a little wink to his home team: “Oh, these religious morons and their obsession with abortion! Of course, I could care less about it, but I also know it’s impolitic to say so, so I’ll emit a brief rhetoric fog and hope no one will notice.” And it’s mendacious because when it comes to “pay grades,” no one’s is higher than the President’s."Above my pay grade" does seem like an awful expression in this context. It made a bad impression on me when I heard it last night. (I said it sounded "cold.") But thinking about it this morning, I'm pretty sure he meant to refer to God.
"Above my pay grade" is an expression of humility and submission to God: I don't purport to answer the question that belongs to God. He's trying to be folksy, coining a phrase akin to "the man upstairs." When someone says "the man upstairs," you don't start railing about how we're on the top floor, but that's because we know we're dealing with a folksy expression. People are too touchy on the subject of abortion to process the less common "above my pay grade" as an expression.
Obama may have thought that, in a church, talking to a pastor, with religion hovering around every question, listeners would understand that he was putting himself beneath God. But I didn't pick that up last night, Roger Kimball isn't picking it up, and, scanning the articles on the subject this morning, I'd say almost no one heard it as a religious statement, so we must judge "above my pay grade" as a rhetorical misfire. But we shouldn't say it's "insulting and mendacious."
Now, let's also look at Rick Warren's rhetoric. He asked, after a preface about abortion, "when does a baby get human rights in your view?" And, most obviously, his use of "baby" instead of "fetus" or at least "unborn baby" conveys a lot of opinion. But look at what else Warren is doing. He is not asking when does life begin?, a question that is much more susceptible to Obama's answer that only God knows. Warren is asking when do rights begin? That makes it a legal question. And Warren even appends the phrase "in your view."
So Obama's answer — that it's not for him to say — is inapt. Obama answered the question he expected to hear. But Warren had the wit to frame the question in terms of a legal opinion that Obama was fully equipped to give. When does the baby have legal rights?
And we know Obama's answer to that question, don't we? I think his answer is: When it is completely outside of the mother's body. Is it any more subtle than that? If it is, it's not much more subtle, and it's no wonder Obama chose not to answer the question asked.
ADDED: Rick Warren is asked whether the "above my pay grade" answer was good enough:
No. I think he needed to be more specific on that. I happen to disagree with Barack on that. Like I said, he's a friend. But to me, I would not want to die and get before God one day and go, 'Oh, sorry, I didn't take the time to figure out' because if I was wrong then it had severe implications to my leadership if I had the ability to do something about it. He should either say, 'No scientifically, I do not believe it's a human being until X' or whatever it is or to say, 'Yes, I believe it is a human being at X point,' whether it's conception or anything else. But to just say 'I don't know' on the most divisive issue in America is not a clear enough answer for me.