Last week, the traditional American media went absolutely crazy over comments the president reportedly made regarding African and poorer Caribbean nations. In case you somehow don't know the substance of these comments, here is a quick rundown. Most people weren't exactly surprised given the tenor of his previous public comments (and other comments caught on video). His supporters often defend him by saying that "politically incorrect" comments are said by many other politicians. But the issue here isn't necessarily the vulgarity of the comments (though we ought to hold the president to a higher standard than your friend down at the bar). The issue is the target of these vulgarities. We could go into great detail about how these statements were factually incorrect (many immigrants from Africa and Haiti are very well educated). But factually ignorant statements are a hallmark of this administration. Instead, this week we will look to explain why words that are uttered by the president actually ARE a big deal.
The office of President of the United States is more than just a series of powers vested in one person by the Constitution. The president is the formal representative of the nation, and by extension, its people. Throughout history, presidents have used this immense power to both amplify and influence the popular American mood. There is almost always a sense of tact, or at least of resolute determination with which a president speaks. In this way, he or she attempts to place the American people in a positive light, even while stating an otherwise unpopular opinion. These statements, if true, do nothing to increase the image of the American people. Though the president's alleged comments were ostensibly made in private, the realities of the office mean that no president truly has the right to privacy. Both Democrat and Republican presidents have taken fire for this reality.
But the issue extends beyond the perception of the American people. After all, there are plenty of people who completely agree with what the president appears to have said. The real issue is that these comments were not just directed at certain people, but at entire nations. Take the African nation of Nigeria for instance. The United States relies heavily upon the Nigerian government and its intelligence service to monitor terrorist groups such as Boko Haram. Though Nigeria won't likely abandon this program simply because of the president's statements, it certainly doesn't help in brokering future intelligence sharing endeavors. Not to mention, such comments have the very real possibility of drawing the ire of average people who may be susceptible to influence by terrorist groups. And despite the tremendous magnitude of tragedy that Haiti has experienced in recent years, it is still a party to several trade agreements with the United States. If the president wants to have any hope of renegotiating some of these trade agreements, he will need the support of other governments. These alleged statements only serve to make that job harder.
At it's core, American power and influence is about more than just military might. The positive allure of the United States brought about by its cultural and diplomatic clout is fundamental to the continued success of the country. There is a reason others choose to move to the United States or invest here instead of investing in places like Russia. Russia has a massive ground military force, but the ideals on which that nation is founded do little to inspire others to support its causes. American power works precisely because it provides positive encouragement for people to join up (or at least understand the American position). This can be done even when the message is one of American protectionism or tougher trade deals. There is a world of difference between acknowledging the struggles of migrants while still proposing a policy of curbing immigration, versus just saying "they're rapists." The office of president requires tact and carefully thought language. Political inexperience is no excuse for a lack of common sense and decency.