Barack Obama and Michael Vick
President Obama has an unfortunate habit of weighing in on controversies that are basically none of his business, most notoriously when he blasted the Cambridge police for arresting Henry Gates. This morning he did it again, telephoning Jeffrey Lurie, the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, to express appreciation for the Eagles’ giving quarterback Michael Vick a second chance.
At the Washington Post, Ezra Klein terms this the “weirdest story of the morning,” noting that the White House now seems to have backed off on Obama’s comment about Vick, and instead characterizes the phone call as one relating to “plans for the use of alternative energy at Lincoln Financial Field.” Klein thinks Obama was right the first time, and for once I agree.
Anyone who follows professional sports knows that there are many low-lifes in the ranks of professional athletes. Vick may well be one of them; certainly his running of a dog fighting ring was repellent. But the difference between Vick and pretty much everyone else is that Vick was actually punished for his misdeeds. He served two years in prison. In contrast, Ray Lewis’ experience was more typical: he was involved in a double murder, and his defense was that he only supplied the getaway car. Lewis got one year of probation and not long thereafter was the MVP of the Super Bowl.
In my view, Vick, having served his prison sentence, is even. He deserves the same employment opportunities as everyone else. The remarkable fact is that, after two years out of football, he is a better player now than he was before. If fans don’t want to cheer for him, that’s their business. But this time, I agree with Obama–on Vick, not “the use of alternative energy at Lincoln Financial Field.”
PAUL demurs: My view of Obama’s comments on Vick is less favorable. It’s fine that Obama sees Vick’s story as a heartwarming tale of redemption, though I don’t. But his attempt to translate that tale into a larger lesson for society is problematic.
According to the owner of the Eagles, Obama told him that “so many of the people who serve time never get a second chance; it’s never a level playing field for prisoners when they get out of jail.” Obama reportedly added that he was happy the Eagles did something on such a national stage to show faith in giving someone a second chance after such a major downfall.
Actually it is not uncommon for athletes to get the opportunity to play for sports teams after being incarcerated. Sports teams will take just about anyone they think can help them win, regardless of past problems. For example, baseball fans of a certain age will recall that Gates Brown and Ron LeFlore went from prison to the Detroit Tigers farm system and then to the major leagues. The major difference between them and Vick is that Vick was already an established pro, meaning that his team probably had more reason to believe he would help it than the Tigers did with Brown and LeFlore.
Talented relief pitcher Steve Howe received something like seven chances to pitch in the Major Leagues following drug suspensions and/or positive test results (I don’t recall that he was ever incarcerated, but the “redemption” issue is comparable). I always reckoned that five of those chances were down to his fastball and, given the scarcity of quality lefty relievers, the other two were because he pitched left-handed.
But Obama wasn’t just off-base in suggesting that there was something exceptional about a very talented and successful athlete getting a second chance. His deeper fallacy was to suppose that the Eagles’ positive experience with Vick should serve as a model for employers generally.
I don’t know what the recidivism rate is for high-earning athletes who have been convicted of, in essence, murdering dogs. I suspect, however, that the Eagles were taking little risk that Vick would return to a life of crime.
But the recidivism rate for the average 20-something male who have been convicted of a felony is extremely high during the first few years after release from prison. This means that employers take an appreciable risk in hiring recently released felons, especially for certain types of jobs.
Accordingly, in my view there should not, in most cases, be “a level playing field for prisoners when they get out of jail.” Employers should feel free to take into account the risks of employing such individuals. The Eagles experience with Vick is a special case that should, and I’m pretty certain will, have little resonance for most employers considering whether to hire most ex-prisoners.
Obama’s suggestion to the contrary is a knee-jerk reaction. It betrays the same lack of seriousness that has plagued some of his other efforts to weigh in on issues that are none of his business.
How do they like him now?
I think it’s clear that the Democrats expected George W. Bush to be the gift that keeps on giving when it comes to electoral politics. Frankly, I expected this as well, albeit to a lesser degree than the Dems did.
But that’s not how things are turning out. It’s not just that Democratic efforts to make the 2010 election a referendum on the Bush presidency failed (predictably enough). There is also plenty of evidence that Bush is no longer very unpopular, if indeed he is unpopular at all.
Today’s news brings us additional evidence on this score. First, a Gallup poll rates him as the second most admired American. He’s well behind Barack Obama but slightly ahead of Bill Clinton.
Second, sales of Bush’s new book, Decision Points, have reached two million. The book was released early last month. As Peter Wehner notes, Bill Clinton’s biography, My Life, has sold 2.2 million since it was published in 2004. Bush’s publisher, Crown, said it could not think of any other non-fiction book that sold even one million copies this year.
It’s possible that Bush rates second on the most admired list and sold so many books based solely on the view of his hard-core supporters. But other evidence shows that his comeback is broader than that. For example, Bush has run neck-and-neck with President Obama in hypothetical presidential matchups this year.
How do we account for Bush’s comeback? I don’t think he’s made much new headway among arch-conservatives. 2010 saw the right turn away even more decisively than before from Bush’s “compassionate” or “big government” conservatism. Nor is there much reason to believe that the left has come to view Bush in a new light.
More likely, Bush’s revival is driven by those closer to the center. This seems fitting, since Bush was far more of a centrist than many of his critics assumed. Both of the wars he initiated had bipartisan, and strong popular, support when he initiated them. And he reached across the aisle on issues like No Child Left Behind and the prescription drug benefit. He even tried at the beginning of his presidency to compromise with Democrats on judicial nominees.
But why has the center revised its views of Bush? I suspect it’s because of the contrast between him and his successor, the alleged post-partisan. Obama’s first two years were far more ideologically single-minded than was the Bush presidency.
Moreover, and at least as importantly, Obama’s periodic belligerence and petulance must have reminded many of how gracefully Bush carried himself. Though significantly less popular as president than Obama, and more widely reviled, Bush never seemed to whine and rarely attempted to blame others. Unlike Obama, he was willing to praise his predecessor. And he steadfastly declines to criticize his successor.
Finally, the issue that contributed the most to Bush’s loss of popularity among those in the center — the Iraq war — looks quite different today than it did when centrists turned against him over it. The war remains controversial, of course, but I doubt that it is widely viewed as a disaster these days.
The Bush presidency continues to be important. His tax policy has been extended; the war he initiated in Afghanistan is being waged more vigorously than when Bush left office; Gitmo remains in operation, and so forth. But the ongoing importance of his presidency is substantive — key Bush policies remain compelling enough to retain — not political, as the Democrats had hoped.