At a CNN town hall Wednesday night with members of the military and their families, President Barack Obama was asked by a serviceman to weigh in on San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the national anthem, saying that he believed that time “should be reserved to respect our service members.”
Obama’s answer may ultimately rank as one of his finest extemporaneous speeches. After acknowledging his own personal respect for the national anthem, he went on to give the tough answer:
I'm… always trying to remind folks that part of what makes this country special is that we respect people's rights to have a different opinion and to make different decisions about how they want to express their concerns. And the test of our fidelity to our Constitution, the freedom of speech, to our Bill of Rights, is not when it's easy, but when it's hard. We fight sometimes so that people can do things that we disagree with.
It probably was not the answer that a room full of military and their families wanted to hear (and it was unclear if anyone in the room picked up on how the president subtly avoided affirming the idea that the national anthem be reserved for honoring the armed forces). But Obama had words for the NFL player as well:
I want Mr. Kaepernick and others who are on a knee, I want them to listen to the pain that that may cause somebody who, for example, had a spouse or a child who was killed in combat, and why it hurts them to see somebody not standing. But I also want people to think about the pain that he may be expressing about somebody who's lost a loved one that they think was unfairly shot.
In many respects, Obama’s statement is just the latest, finest example of what makes him such an excellent statesman. He can see all sides of an issue, and he can talk about it in a way that is both respectful and challenging to opposing interests. Obama’s response here was the right one: nuanced, empathetic, siding with neither side over the other, and prodding people to wrestle with their positions and how they affect others.
But in another respect, this utopia where opponents carefully consider the opinions of others is as fantastical as Obama’s third term. While Obama’s answer in this town hall was 100 percent the right one, by brushing past the reasons these two sides aren’t listening to each other, he seems to actually miss the hard part. Here, Obama betrays his limitations as a politician, that tenacity combined with scrappiness which can get two parties in a room who’d just as soon see the other roasted alive.
As much as I will miss Obama’s thoughtfulness, intellect, and rhetoric, my hope is that a (fingers crossed) President Hillary Clinton will bring a little more of that trickery, cunning, and who knows, maybe even some light LBJ-style bullying to the White House. It might be the only way the Union can survive.