What happened was, most people thought he was taking a position on the wisdom of building the mosque. That is, they didn't see that he was remaining aloof on the high plane of abstraction, beckoning them to join him up there and bask once again in the beautiful harmony that radiated from his glorious presidential campaign. But they'd moved on to trying to solve particular problems, and — like a law student handing in a D exam — Obama hadn't done the hard work of applying the doctrine to the fact pattern.
Obama's response, when he saw that people had misunderstood what he'd said, was to chide them for misreading. He didn't take advantage of the opportunity to do a rewrite and apply the uncontroversial principles to the controversial real-world problem. He stood firm on his lofty pillar of abstraction.
"The danger here is an incoherent presidency," said David Morey, vice chairman of the Core Strategy Group, who provided communications advice to Obama's 2008 campaign. "Simpler is better, and rising above these issues and leading by controlling the dialogue is what the presidency is all about. So I think that's the job they have to do more effectively as they have in the past [in the campaign]."No! Simpler is only better if people accept the invitation to ascend to that high plane of abstraction where no particular decisions are made. Even if they do, it's only a temporary harmony, because when a particular decision needs to be made, disagreement will reemerge. That's what Morey is perceiving as "incoherence." To say, Obama should use abstraction to achieve coherence is to say Obama should hide our disagreements by avoiding the hard work of governing.
"There is no question they are having messaging problems at the White House," Morey said. "They've lost control of the dialogue, and they've gotten pulled down by the extremes on the left and right. They've just not had a coherent set of themes."But Obama should descend on his own from that level of abstraction — that "coherent set of themes." If he doesn't do it himself, he will be "pulled down" by whoever fills the gap and takes specific positions about the details he likes to rise above.
"Communicating as a law professor does not work as president. It's not worked," [Morey] said. "You're drawing fine distinctions and speaking in long enough paragraphs that they can be misconstrued and taken out of context and frankly, handed to your opposition to exploit. And that's clearly what's going on here [with the Islamic center/mosque comments]."Only a bad law professor operates that way. A good law professor speaks as clearly as possible and draws attention to anything the courts have glossed over or left ambiguous. We lawprofs try to extract the doctrinal rules and point up any place where courts have left the rule mushy. Then we apply those rules to particular factual settings. We hypothesize the most difficult applications of law to fact and help the students work through these hard problems. Obama's lolling at high levels of abstract principle and avoiding the specifics of applying principle to real problems is not the way of the law professor.