Topic: Government & Politics

When the President is on Personal Business
(3/28/2009)

A recent letter of complaint to the Washington Post takes President Obama and the First Lady to task for insisting on attending a parent-teacher conference at their daughterís school. As is always the case when POTUS travels around Washington, D.C., this First Family appointment entailed street closings, traffic jams, a trail of limos and security vehicles, thousands of dollars of taxpayer expense and serious delays and inconvenience for many Washingtonians. Why not have the meeting via teleconference, the letter queried? Why not bring the teacher to the White House? The irate writer asked whether it was fair and right for the Presidentís insistence on fulfilling a parental responsibility in person to inconvenience so many.

Itís a good question, and not as easy to answer as the writer might assume. The issue illustrates how even the most mundane activities raise important ethical considerations when one is in a leadership position, and especially this one.

It wasnít so long ago when presidents traveled around D.C. with minimal security. Indeed, it is remarkable that there have been so few successful assassination attempts on the Chief Executive, since it took us so long to provide the office with thorough protection. For decades, however, D.C. residents have gritted their teeth and endured the howling sirens, blocked traffic and late meetings that accompany presidential jaunts in the city. The President of the United States canít be prisoner in the White House.

On the other hand, an ethical president must be mindful of the expense, disruption, and inconvenience to others that he necessarily causes every time he goes out. These are direct consequences of his conduct, and he has an obligation not to ignore their seriousness or act as if they are not worthy of his concern. The Post letter obviously was looking at Barack and Michelleís trip in this light. Sure, itís nice that the Obamas take a proper interest in their kidsí education, but this is personal, not national business. Is it fair for them to put their family duties above the lives of all the people inconvenienced when the president rides through Washington? This is America, after all: we have no royalty. If the Obamas arenít doing the nationís work, their activities are no more important than those of any other citizen, right?

Well, sort of right. Presidents work seven days a week, and their families make many sacrifices so that the elected leader of the free world can labor for the national interest. As long as Obama isnít routinely revving up the motorcade to go to the 7-11 or the Multiplex, Washingtonians should be willing to endure some inconvenience allow his family some semblance of a normal life.

Most important of all, there is the leadership factor. One of the reasons for the decline in Americaís education is that too many parents canít be bothered to take a proactive role in their childrenís schooling. They are too busy, too tired, or too self-involvedÖ.or so they claim. But if the President of the United States can find the time to go to a parent-teacher conference, by George, there are no excuses! Serving as a national role model, as a man, a father, and a citizen, is a critical part of Barack Obamaís job. If it costs taxpayers some money for a limo and motorcycle convoy and ties up some D.C. traffic to remind Mr. and Mrs. Workaholic and their neighbors, the Irresponsibles, that their kids need them to pay attention to their schooling, then that is money and time well spent.

Even when the President is just meeting a parental responsibility, he is doing his job.

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