Based in part on my post at http://justsayingthat.wordpress.com/2010/09/08/the-obama-petraeus-rule-dont-express-official-opinions-on-things-you-cant-control/ and in part on a comment I made on this post.
What does General Petraeus’ comments on burning Qu’rans have in common with President Obama’s habit of talking about things like the Park51 Mosque and the Cambridge Police?
In each case, as a British law student, I think the problem is that there is a breach of a constitutional convention. I mean that in the sense of a customary rule about how one exercises power which is not legally enforceable, of course, rather than a meeting in Philadelphia.
Now, because the US has a written constitution, conventional rules are less important than in the UK, but they still exist. They are the intangible things where people feel an official’s action is wrong even though it is legal.
Here, Petraeus has an official role as a General. He has no power over a church in Florida. So, when he talks about the latter in uniform and using the title “General”, he is using his official role when talking about something outside it.
Likewise, Obama has an official role as POTUS that gives him no power over New York zoning laws or Cambridge police action. So, it’s improper for him to express his views on these at official Presidential events.
In each case, had they emphasized that they were just talking about their private views as citizens, there would be less of a problem. But in a government of limited powers, officeholders exceed their powers when they express an “official” view on something in which they have no official business.
If Petraeus really wanted to talk about some fools in Florida, he should have taken off his uniform to do so. If Obama really wanted to talk about the Mosque or Gates, he should have done so outside of an official speech or press conference. Each should have clarified that he was talking as a private citizen, not in any official role.
Burning Qu’rans is a stupid thing to do which achieves very little apart from angering Muslims, including many who have done nothing against us. That doesn’t mean that officials should say so, except in their roles as private citizens.
The reason there was so much political fallout from Obama’s comments, and now to a lesser extent to Petraeus’, was because the public detected the impropriety of officials talking officially about things that aren’t within their area of responsibility. It’s unconstitutional (with a small u), in the sense that it is outside the spirit of the Constitution even if technically lawful.
The rule is this: If you hold an official position, it’s better not to express opinions on things outside your powers. If you must do so, at least clarify that your comments are made in a personal, non-official capacity.