Sooner or later, most presidential administrations make some version of the Sun King's mistake. "L'état, c'est moi," Louis XIV of France is said to have declared "I am the state." To criticize the man becomes downright unpatriotic.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs crept up to that line even put his toe over it as he tried to capitalize on the antiBarack Obama declarations of talk-show behemoth Rush Limbaugh. In January, and again at a recent gathering of conservatives in Washington, Limbaugh pointedly declared that he hopes for the failure of Obama's economic proposals. (See 25 people to blame for the financial crisis.)
Limbaugh is hardly the only American with doubts about Obama's economics. A new poll by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News found that even in a country largely supportive of Obama, most voters remain skeptical that his stimulus plans will do much good. Nevertheless, Democrats scampered to make Limbaugh the new mascot of the GOP and thus link the word conservative with the word failure. Gibbs urged reporters to ask if all Republicans "want to see the President's economic agenda fail." Michael Steele, the new party chairman, rushed to say no. Limbaugh, Steele said, is "an entertainer" given to "incendiary" and "ugly" overstatements. Like other GOP leaders who have tried to dismiss the broadcaster, however, Steele soon felt obliged to apologize to the man with the 20 million listeners. (See the top 10 campaign gaffes of 2008.)
Back to Gibbs. His Sun King moment came when he construed Limbaugh's opposition as "wishing and hoping for economic failure in this country." Certainly, it's tricky to find the line between President and nation, especially in a time of crisis. And Limbaugh's defense "What's so strange about being honest?" was not exactly in tune with his reactions to Democratic critics of George W. Bush. (See Bush's biggest economic mistakes.)
But the words of Theodore Roosevelt, issued in the midst of a world war, may still be apt in our present troubles. "To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile but is morally treasonable to the American public." Roosevelt said this, of course, when he was no longer President.