Former President Obama on the Ethics of Governing
Former President Obama receives the Paul H. Douglas Award for Ethics in Government from the University of Illinois Institute of Government & Public Affairs. Photo credit: L. Brian Stauffer.
Hana Callaghan directs the government ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California. She is a member of the selection committee for the Paul H. Douglas Award for Ethics in Government given annually by the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs. On September 7, 2018, the honor was awarded to former president Barack Obama. The opinions expressed herein are her own.
Much has been made in the press about President’s Obama’s recent address to the students of the University of Illinois. The focus of most stories was that this was a partisan political speech lashing out at President Trump. I was in Champaign on September 7 and heard the speech in its totality. While the former president did have harsh words for the current one, there was in addition a call to unity and bipartisanship regarding the ethics of governing. Here are those excerpts from the speech that haven’t been widely publicized.
On past bipartisanship on the international stage: “American leadership across the globe wasn't perfect. We made mistakes. At times we lost sight of our ideals. We had fierce arguments about Vietnam, and we had fierce arguments about Iraq. But thanks to our leadership, a bipartisan leadership, and the efforts of diplomats and Peace Corps volunteers, and most of all thanks to the constant sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, we not only reduced the prospects of war between the world's great powers, we not only won the Cold War, we helped spread a commitment to certain values and principles, like the rule of law and human rights and democracy and the notion of the inherent dignity and worth of every individual.”
On the politics of divisiveness: “Appealing to tribe, appealing to fear, pitting one group against another, telling people that order and security will be restored if it weren't for those who don't look like us or don't sound like us or don't pray like we do, that's an old playbook. It's as old as time. And in a healthy democracy it doesn't work. Our antibodies kick in, and people of goodwill from across the political spectrum call out the bigots and the fear mongers, and work to compromise and get things done and promote the better angels of our nature…
… Now, understand, this is not just a matter of Democrats versus Republicans or liberals versus conservatives. At various times in our history, this kind of politics has infected both parties. Southern Democrats were the bigger defenders of slavery. It took a Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, to end it. Dixiecrats filibustered anti-lynching legislation, opposed the idea of expanding civil rights, and although it was a Democratic President and a majority Democratic Congress, spurred on by young marchers and protesters, that got the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act over the finish line, those historic laws also got passed because of the leadership of Republicans like Illinois' own Everett Dirksen.”
On finding common ground: “Common ground exists. Maybe it's not fashionable to say that right now. It's hard to see it with all the nonsense in Washington, it's hard to hear it with all the noise. But common ground exists. I have seen it. I have lived it. I know there are white people who care deeply about black people being treated unfairly. I have talked to them and loved them. And I know there are black people who care deeply about the struggles of white rural America. I'm one of them and I have a track record to prove it.
I know there are evangelicals who are deeply committed to doing something about climate change. I've seen them do the work. I know there are conservatives who think there's nothing compassionate about separating immigrant children from their mothers. I know there are Republicans who believe government should only perform a few minimal functions but that one of those functions should be making sure nearly 3,000 Americans don't die in a hurricane and its aftermath.
Common ground's out there. I see it every day. Just how people interact, how people treat each other. You see it on the ball field. You see it at work. You see it in places of worship.”
On restoring faith in government: “…[I]n order to move this country forward, to actually solve problems and make people's lives better, we need a well-functioning government, we need our civic institutions to work. We need cooperation among people of different political persuasions. And to make that work, we have to restore our faith in democracy. We have to bring people together, not tear them apart. We need majorities in Congress and state legislatures who are serious about governing and want to bring about real change and improvements in people's lives.”
On civility: “To make democracy work we have to be able to get inside the reality of people who are different, have different experiences, come from different backgrounds. We have to engage them even when it is frustrating; we have to listen to them even when we don't like what they have to say; we have to hope that we can change their minds and we have to remain open to them changing ours.”
“And we won't win people over by calling them names, or dismissing entire chunks of the country as racist, or sexist, or homophobic. When I say bring people together, I mean all of our people.”
On nonpartisan governmental norms: “I am here to tell you that even if you don't agree with me or Democrats on policy, even if you believe in more Libertarian economic theories, even if you are an evangelical and our position on certain social issues is a bridge too far, even if you think my assessment of immigration is mistaken and that Democrats aren't serious enough about immigration enforcement, I'm here to tell you that you should still be concerned with our current course and should still want to see a restoration of honesty and decency and lawfulness in our government.
It should not be Democratic or Republican, it should not be a partisan issue to say that we do not pressure the attorney general or the FBI to use the criminal justice system as a cudgel to punish our political opponents. Or to explicitly call on the attorney general to protect members of our own party from prosecution because an election happens to be coming up. I'm not making that up. That's not hypothetical.
It shouldn't be Democratic or Republican to say that we don't threaten the freedom of the press because – they say things or publish stories we don't like. I complained plenty about Fox News – but you never heard me threaten to shut them down, or call them enemies of the people.
It shouldn't be Democratic or Republican to say we don't target certain groups of people based on what they look like or how they pray.
We are Americans. We're supposed to stand up to bullies. Not follow them.”
You can read a transcript of the entire speech here.