Decoding Obama

Published June 12, 2009

Commentary Web Exclusive

In the course of only five months, President Obama has reached into his bag and pulled out a dazzling number of misleading rhetorical tricks.

Let's begin with his much-touted claim that his Administration is responsible for having “saved or created” at least 150,000 American jobs, even though we have shed well over a million jobs since Obama took office. Jesus may have turned water into wine — but even He did not claim to have turned job losses into job gains. That is the picture Obama is trying to portray. Of course, to place an empirical figure on the number of jobs Obama has “saved” is risible; if Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush had tried to get away with such a stunt, they would have been ridiculed and criticized mercilessly. Among the largely supine and compliant Obama press corps, however, the claim is reported as if it were written on tablets of stone.

Obama's “saved and created” claim is cousin to the contention by Obama that his Administration — you know, the one which would put an end to “phony accounting” — had identified $2 trillion in savings in his budget. It turns out, though, that $1.6 trillion of this amount qualifies as “savings” under the assumption that the surge in Iraq would have continued for 10 more years. The problem is that Obama made this savings claim despite having already declared that our combat mission in Iraq will end by August 31, 2010 — and despite the fact that the Status of Forces Agreement calls for all U.S. forces to be out of Iraq by December 2011.

The President assures us that his budget moves America “from an era of borrow and spend” to one of “save and invest.” He speaks about our responsibility to our children “to ensure that we do not pass on to them a debt they cannot pay.” Yet according to the Congressional Budget Office, on Obama's watch the national debt will double in six years and nearly triple it in 10 years. (This year alone federal spending will top $4 trillion, which equals more than 28 percent of the GDP, a level exceeded only at the height of World War II; the deficit for this fiscal year is projected to be more than $1.8 trillion; and the deficit as a percentage of the GDP, which was less than 1.2 percent in 2007, will be almost 13 percent this year.)

President Obama claims, “What we are not doing — what I have no interest in doing — is running GM.” But as George Will has written, this is a “president who, when not firing GM's CEO, purging its board of directors and picking new members, is designing new products (imposing fuel economy requirements that will control size, weight, passenger capacity and safety).”

Obama also insists he wants to “disabuse people of this notion that somehow we enjoy meddling in the private sector.” I'm sure he does. But he is overseeing the greatest intrusion of the federal government into the private sector in our lifetime — and Obama & Company seem to enjoy it quite a lot. Not satisfied with the federal government's unprecedented involvement in our financial and mortgage institutions and the American automobile industry, the President is now turning his sights to executive compensation and health care, which constitutes one-sixth of the American economy. Speaking of which: Mr. Obama has spoken about the need to control the “crushing cost of health care” as justification for a massive expansion of the government's role into that arena. Yet Obama's health care plan would impose crushing new costs. As my colleague James Capretta has written, Democrats “have promised to extend insurance subsidies to tens of millions of households, which will cost at least $1 trillion over the next decade.”

When it comes to his Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, Obama has said, “I hope the Senate acts in a bipartisan fashion, as it has in confirming Judge Sotomayor twice before, and as swiftly as possible, so that she can take her seat on the court.” He added, “What I hope is that we can avoid the political posturing and ideological brinksmanship that has bogged down this process, and Congress, in the past.” Yet when he served in the Senate, Obama voted against two extraordinarily qualified nominees, John Roberts and Samuel Alito. And Obama engaged in what could fairly be described as political posturing and ideological brinksmanship in not only saying he would join a filibuster of Alito, but then in voting against cloture.

In his recent speech on terrorism, Obama spoke about his concern for a “legitimate legal framework, with the kind of meaningful due process and rights for the accused that could stand up on appeal.” Yet in the very same speech, Obama went on to say, “even when this process is complete, there may be a number of people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes, but who nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States.” Obama, in other words, endorsed the idea of indefinite detention without trial.

The President continues to focus most of his outrage on a technique, waterboarding, that was stopped when he was still a state senator from Illinois. He prides himself on wanting to shut down Guantanamo Bay — even though the Supreme Court has ruled that habeas corpus rights extend to detainees being held there, meaning they are unlikely to receive any more rights if held in America than if they are held in Cuba. Under his leadership, the U.S. is continuing renditions, military commissions, and targeted killings of suspected al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And as Jack Goldsmith has written, the Obama Justice Department has “filed a legal brief arguing that the president can detain indefinitely, without charge or trial, members of al Qaeda, the Taliban, ‘associated forces,' and those who ‘substantially support' these groups, no matter where in the world they are captured.” All of this from a man who says he believes “with every fiber of my being that in the long run we also cannot keep this country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values” — values which once upon a time he thought were undermined by these practices.

Barack Obama promised to make transparency a hallmark of his presidency — yet his Administration has resolutely refused to declassify documents requested by former Vice President Cheney that speak to the efficacy of enhanced interrogation techniques (Obama, it should be emphasized, was quite willing to release previously classified memoranda on the techniques themselves).

Then there are the things that have almost been forgotten by now. Obama, during the campaign, said, “[Lobbyists] will not work in my White House” — even though he immediately allowed waivers for lobbyists. Having pledged to slash earmarks by more than half when he became president, Obama signed an omnibus spending bill containing 8,500 of them. Having made bi-partisanship a pillar of his campaign, Obama has so far governed in a more partisan fashion than any president in generations. Having claimed the capacity to “see all sides of an argument,” the president routinely constructs strawmen he can set ablaze. And having said “nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past,” Obama spends an inordinate amount of time and energy doing just that (in one speech alone, he included more than two dozen critical comments, direct or implied, against the Bush Administration).

It is hardly unprecedented for a politician to rely on contradictory, misleading, and intellectually dishonest s
tatements. But in only five months, Barack Obama — the man who campaigned on a new kind of politics, who ran on hope and against cynicism, and who insisted “words mean something” — has set a pace that is going to be hard to match, and hopefully hard to sustain.

“I have always had a sort of mania about words,” Malcolm Muggeridge said in a speech he delivered more than three decades ago. “Words can be polluted even more dramatically and drastically than rivers and land and sea. There has been a terrible destruction of words in our time.” It is an irony that Barack Obama, a politician as gifted in both the written and spoken word as we have seen in decades, has contributed to the cheapening of them.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in  Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.

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