THE BLOG
07/18/2013 02:43 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2013

Will the President's Legacy Be More Than Rodney King's Plea to 'Get along?'

The pressure on Eric Holder to bring a federal hate crime prosecution against George Zimmerman is reminiscent of the federal answer to the failed state prosecution of the police assault upon Rodney King. The denial of civil rights prosecuted successfully in the King case showed the benefit of a federal system. Local bias rectified by more distant objectivity, rescuing Los Angeles from deadly rioting in the streets.

The general public dissatisfaction with the Zimmerman verdict is touching a deeper range of sensitivities expressing serious concern, if not yet genuine dissatisfaction with the second term performance of the Obama administration.

Mr. Zimmerman may or may not warrant similar treatment. We all have a view of how much racial motivation lingered within his ill-considered belief that an even more ill-begotten stand your ground law deputized him personally to keep the peace. It didn't. Police work is difficult, and we see in the driven impulsiveness of Mr. Zimmerman how much our everyday freedom depends upon the prudence learned in police academies.

That personal lack of prudence is tragic in Zimmerman's case, and it will take the wisdom of Solomon to know how the Zimmerman immaturity weighs against the loss of Mr. Martin, especially in light of the factual clouds which obscure how the seconds-long confrontation played out. Mr. Holder is right to focus attention on the state law that created the basis for Zimmerman's posse mentality, and it would be a good time for him as the president's chief law enforcer to begin anew the campaign against handguns, including so-called right to carry laws which by their very mobility overextend the scope of stand your ground laws and neighborhood watch activities. There is no second amendment limitation on regulation reasonably needed to keep weapons out of untrained hands.

The reference to the Rodney King case has resonance at this moment well beyond the much mourned and grievous loss of Trayvon Martin. As already noted, it would be fair to add young Mr. Martin to the list of children whose lives have been sacrificed to the NRA rationalizations in disregard of the unspeakable carnage in school houses and movie theaters, and almost anywhere else in America. Even more broadly, Rodney King's plaintive call for "getting along" has implications for what the president may still wish to accomplish internationally in respect to Syria, Israel, and most presently, Egypt, not to mention the long suffering areas of violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, and sub-Saharan Africa.

Mr. King, was not an educated man, and what he said and how he said it has too often been mocked by us sophisticates, as if supplying weapons to some part of a civil war in Syria or tolerating Israel's disregard of its 1967 borders, or sending deputy secretary of state Bill Burns into the violence of Cairo with little more leeway than the question: "and to whom should we make out this billion dollar check for foreign aid?" William Burns is a consummate diplomat and he deserves a green light to insist that our foreign policy not indulge pretense -- such as the absence of a coup. Military intervention with the leader of the military occupying high civilian office is a failed state, not an operating one. To hand-cuff Mr. Burns to a lie is destined to confuse our remaining friends in Cairo who just a few years ago saw great hope and promise for re-centering U.S.-Arab relations on what President Obama called "mutual respect derived from mutual understanding."

What was Mr. King's unalloyed message to a world in crisis? Just this: Can we get along? Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids?

It is worth the few seconds it takes to watch King articulate his sentiment on YouTube because it immediately transcends the cynical mockery that often attends its reference.

King was glib to be sure but quite useful as a measure of how complacently the signature achievement of the Obama first term may be being forfeited. For generations, we had in fact deferred taking care of the older people and the children every time we put off the importance of universal health care. Now, the sad concurrence of the Obama administration in its insufficiently explained one year deferral of the obligation of large employers (those with more than 50 employees) to offer a health plan has jeopardized access to care for millions.

The explanation? "We've heard concerns about the complexity of the rules and regulations," says Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Mark Mazur.

Maybe, just maybe, the disclosure requirements would have been simpler if the affordable care act had been drafted to deliver the subject of its title directly -- and not scatter it over the tax and regulatory systems with multiple effective dates. While it is hoped that many employers who offered insurance before the Act won't stop doing so, without the mandate no one really knows. But is this really the justification for delay?

The consequences demand greater answer. Since employees are still mandated by an earlier effective date to have insurance, giving large corporate employers a pass seemingly has the potential to greatly balloon Medicaid and other government subsidies for insurance pools. Such public expenditure may be warranted but not when it will also likely yield fewer health options for the middle-class and little, if any, public money left over to have attention paid to the quality of care.

Losing health care diminishes greatly the Obama legacy, arguably even below Mr. King's bare minimum for all "to get along."

The meagerness of the Senate's recent compromise freeing a handful of the president's nominees from the vice of the Senate filibuster illustrates. The Constitution is a majority rule document, except in a few places where super-majorities are necessary to cool antagonisms long enough to ensure the existence of a political consensus for wise policy choice. That is why the Constitution requires a two-thirds vote to override a presidential veto, for example. But the Constitution divides power to secure individual rights, not to render the executive and judicial branches ineffective for want of personnel. When the Senate uses every conceivable means to block responsible governance, the president is left scrounging for questionable mechanisms -- from executive orders approving controversial drone strikes under an Authorization for the Use of Military Force suitable to the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but dangerously continued to present day, or by recess appointment claims that make an exceptional grant into the usual practice. The president needs to take public aim at the filibuster and other obstructive practices. At most, the rules that impede legislative action ought to be strictly limited to truly rare circumstances attempting to alter the Constitution by unconstitutional means. It's not enough for the president to view this as a problem for Congress.

Of course, it's not just domestic matters that fall far short of Mr. King's simple prescription. The situation in Egypt is a train wreck, and like most train collisions, avoidable if tracks had been properly laid and kept in repair. President Obama outlined just such an approach in his 2009 Cairo speech recognizing the need for Islam to be given equal dignity, but not entrenched favoritism to the exclusion of the religious preferences and liberties of others, the equal rights of women, or the necessity for all to buy into a democratic structure where rules are known in advance, generally applicable an observant of human rights.

The various iterations of the Egyptian government that emerged from the once hopeful promise of the much touted "Arab Spring" fell decidedly short of the mark. Islam was declared the nation's religion and sharia was to be the measure of the general law. That exclusionary set-up undermined Mr. Morsi's assurances to the United Nations and his cordial conversation with the American press. True, it is not for us to dictate or impose a frame of government that meets the needs of the Egyptian people, but it most certainly is up to us to withhold taxpayer dollars from bankrolling a regime that we know has prepared the track bed in a deficient or one-sided manner.

Egypt is an ancient land of enormous promise. Yet, it lacks experience with modern day constitutional structures. Greater attention to constitutional design could facilitate legitimacy and be worthy of the intelligence and initiative of the Egyptian population writ large. A constitution is always a reflection of the nature of its people, and for that reason, for fine grain attention to constitutional drafting to be successful it needs to grasp not only the prerequisites of a fulsome conception of individual religious liberty but also how Muslim's see living by Islamic law as more spiritual and psychological than legal. Appreciating this, in itself, would lower the temperature because it would avoid trying to devise a legal structure to fulfill religious instruction. Unfortunately, the Obama administration's understanding here is not what it could be because the State Department bureaucracy short-circuited the president's personal interest in inter-faith diplomatic initiative.

Mr. Burns' diplomacy in the aftermath of the Morsi locomotive failing to bring on board the Egyptian majority is naturally seen as superficial or too late. The hopeful message of Rodney King, however, is that it is not too late if the president takes personal charge of his second term and resumes the exercise of bold, honest judgment. That will necessitate, however, actually taking on the NRA and not abandoning the memory of Sandy Hook or how terribly tragic it is that our laws are still biased against the survival of that young man in the hoodie who, as the president observed, very well could have been him. The presidential hour is too late to hide behind the façade of "the blame the Congress" mantra. Rules like the filibuster that defeat workable and accountable government ought to be curtailed or ended. And in international matters, the world community is still willing to accept the president if he is an honest broker -- not blinkering failed efforts in Benghazi or Cairo. In most Arab lands this will necessitate a willingness to address the root causes that undermine the rule of law and embrace the defense of constitutional structures that consciously defend the importance of religion without any singular imposition of one.

If the president needs any inspiration for returning to his stronger and better self beyond the message of Rodney King, let him read the words of Heba El Habashy who recently in popular essay thanked God for the opportunity to live in Cairo. Ms. El Habashy is not an Arabic Pollyanna. She is the well-spoken daughter of an Egyptian Ambassador whose Harvard degree opened doors in New York and Paris, but who chose to return home instead. Why? For reasons not unlike those that propelled Barack Obama into the public eye; namely, a sense of potential that answers "yes" to even great challenge, not by the exercise of power, but by giving the attention to the needs of others. Writing of Egypt's immediate potential, Ms. El Habashy proclaims "you can do almost anything you want here given careful evaluation of who you are trying to target, what it is they need, where they need it and when." Undeterred by the chaos of the moment, Ms. El Habashy prescribes: "Live in a place that needs you. A place that needs your help and where with the same amount of effort your impact can actually reverberate." Impact? Yes, impact, writes Ms. El Habashy that "solves, changes and challenges." Actions taken, not merely rhetoric well delivered, that is "non-disposable, lasting and memorable."

Yes, the Zimmerman verdict was problematically "not guilty," but it has usefully prompted a national examination of conscience -- an opportunity for which the president should not think himself immune. Failing to pay careful attention to this moment of national introspection will leave the president convicted of the greatest of all political crimes: wasted opportunities.