President Obama suddenly has much to say about the state of political discourse in the United States.
On Friday, he offered an assessment of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, attributing his rise to growing partisanship over the past decade. On Tuesday, he called for civility from America’s political leaders.
Those latter comments came in response to what Obama described as the “vicious atmosphere” in American politics, to which he admitted making some contribution.
“I suspect that all of us can recall some intemperate words that we regret. Certainly I can,” he said at a Capitol Hill luncheon in honor of St. Patrick’s Day and visiting Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny. “And while some may be more to blame than others for the current climate, all of us are responsible for reversing it.”
Whatever the cause, Obama said that such “corrosive behavior” undermines democracy, society and the economy, promoting animus and sending the wrong message to the nation’s children.
“We should not have to explain to them this darker side of politics. We should not be afraid to take them to a political rally or let them watch political debates,” he said. “We should be teaching them that this democracy is a vibrant and precious thing. And it’s going to be theirs someday. And we want them to elevate it.”
Obama also commended House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) for publicly calling on Republican front-runner candidate Trump to promote a more harmonious atmosphere at his rallies. (Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters separately that he shared the same message in a phone call with Trump.)
The room fell nearly silent as Obama turned to Ryan to say that, despite “fiercely” disagreeing on policy, Ryan is a good father and husband. “I don’t have a bad word to say about you as a man,” he said.
“The point is, we can have political debates without turning on one another,” Obama continued. “We can disagree without assuming that it’s motivated by malice,” Obama said. “. … We can treat one another as patriots even if we disagree, as fellow Americans who love this country equally, because it’s a place that frees us to have different ideas and different points of view.”
He vowed to reject efforts to stifle speech or spread fear and violence, and encouraged leaders to promote a message of inclusiveness and focus on what Americans have in common rather than their differences.
Those ideals are what helped America survive more trying times and what attracted immigrants in search of the American dream, Obama said.
“It is what provided hope and comfort and opportunity for so many [who] traveled across the Atlantic. It always will, so long as we nurture it,” he added.
Asked about the president’s comments Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the lunch represented an example of “bipartisan camaraderie and fellowship” that is largely absent from the current national political debate.
“It’s an annual opportunity for leaders in both parties to put aside their partisan affiliations and celebrate one part of America that makes us great, and that is the legacy in this country of immigration and the deep ties our country has to Ireland,” he said. “That is something that is regularly celebrated by Democrats and Republicans in Washington, D.C.”
“Unfortunately, it does stand in stark contrast to all of the vulgar and divisive rhetoric we’re seeing on the campaign trail,” Earnest said, adding that the president took the opportunity to talk about it.
“I’m confident it’s not the last time,” Earnest added.
The following is an excerpt from the full transcript of Obama’s Tuesday remarks:
I hope that you’ll forgive me — indulge me for one second as I comment on our domestic politics, just for a moment.
In my State of the Union address, I remarked that many of you have told me you’d like to see more cooperation and a more elevated debate in Washington, but everyone sometimes feels trapped by their politics. I understand that feeling. I served with many of you in Congress. And so I know that I’m not the only one in this room who may be more than a little dismayed about what’s happening on the campaign trail lately. We have heard vulgar and divisive rhetoric aimed at women and minorities — at Americans who don’t look like “us,” or pray like “us,” or vote like we do. We’ve seen misguided attempts to shut down that speech, however offensive it may be. We live in a country where free speech is one of the most important rights that we hold.
In response to those attempts, we’ve seen actual violence, and we’ve heard silence from too many of our leaders. Speaker Ryan, I appreciated the words on this topic that you shared with us this morning. But too often we’ve accepted this as somehow the new normal.
And it’s worth asking ourselves what each of us may have done to contribute to this kind of vicious atmosphere in our politics. I suspect that all of us can recall some intemperate words that we regret. Certainly, I can. And while some may be more to blame than others for the current climate, all of us are responsible for reversing it. For it is a cycle that is not an accurate reflection of America. And it has to stop. And I say that not because it’s a matter of “political correctness,” it’s about the way that corrosive behavior can undermine our democracy, and our society, and even our economy.
In America, there aren’t laws that say that we have to be nice to each other, or courteous, or treat each other with respect. But there are norms. There are customs. There are values that our parents taught us and that we try to teach to our children — to try to treat others the way we want to be treated; the notion that kindness breeds kindness. The longer that we allow the political rhetoric of late to continue, and the longer that we tacitly accept it, we create a permission structure that allows the animosity in one corner of our politics to infect our broader society. And animosity breeds animosity.
And this is also about the American brand. Who are we? How are we perceived around the world? There’s a reason that America has always attracted the greatest talent from every corner of the globe. There’s a reason that “Made in America” means something. It’s because we’re creative, and dynamic, and diverse, and inclusive, and open. Why would we want to see that brand tarnished? The world pays attention to what we say and what we do.
And this is also about what we are teaching our children. We should not have to explain to them this darker side of politics. We should not be afraid to take them to a political rally or let them watch political debates. We should be teaching them that this democracy is a vibrant and precious thing. And it’s going to be theirs someday. And we want them to elevate it.
I had the cast of “Hamilton” at the White House yesterday, who are doing an incredible job getting our young people excited about the possibilities of democracy and the power they have to play a part in it. And these young people drawn from every race and every background from all across the city, you could just see the excitement that they had, the notion that they were somehow connected to the story of a Hamilton, or a Washington, or a Franklin, or a Madison. And so we should be asking ourselves — as those in power with this incredible legacy — whether we are delivering that same message to our children. Are we making them excited about being citizens of this great country?
So when we leave this lunch, I think we have a choice. We can condone this race to the bottom, or accept it as the way things are and sink further. Or we can roundly reject this kind of behavior, whether we see it in the other party, or more importantly, when we see it in our own party, and set a better example for our children and the rest of the country to follow. It starts with us.
Speaker Ryan, you and I don’t agree on a lot of policy. But I know you are a great father and a great husband, and I know you want what’s best for America. And we may fiercely disagree on policy — and the NFC North — (laughter) — but I don’t have a bad word to say about you as a man. And I would never insult my fellow Irish like that.
The point is, we can have political debates without turning on one another. We can disagree without assuming that it’s motivated by malice. There are those here who have fought long and hard to create peace in Northern Ireland and understand what happens when we start going into these dark places, the damage that can be done, and how long it can take to unwind.
So we can treat one another as patriots even if we disagree, as fellow Americans who love this country equally, because it’s a place that frees us to have different ideas and different points of view.
So I reject any effort to spread fear, or encourage violence, or to shut people down when they’re trying to speak, or turn Americans against one another. And I think as a citizen who will still be leading this office, I will not support somebody who practices that kind of politics. And any leader worthy of our support will remind us that even in a country as big and diverse and as inclusive as ours, what we have in common is far bigger and more important than any of our differences.
That’s what carried us through other times that were far more tough and far more dangerous than the one that we’re in today -– times where we were told to fear the future; times where we were told to turn inward and to turn against each other. And each time, we overcame those fears. Each time, we faced the future with confidence in who we are and what we stand for, and the incredible things that we’re capable of together.
And we do this because we are America. It’s a place that sees opportunity where others see peril, and that drew so many Irish and other immigrants to our shores. Our unbending belief that we make our own destiny and our unshakable dream that if we work hard and live up to our responsibilities, and if we look out for one another, then there is a better day lying right around the bend.
That dream has always come true in America. It is what provided hope and comfort and opportunity for so many that traveled across the Atlantic. It always will — so long as we nurture it.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everybody. Let me make a toast.
Juliet Eilperin and Mike DeBonis contributed.