Ethics & Public Policy Center

Our Sophist-in-Chief

Published in Commentary Web Exclusive on July 2, 2009



While I realize my efforts to decode Barack Obama may turn into a never-ending task, I want to focus on another of his rhetorical habits: his ceaseless attempts to portray himself as America's philosopher-king, the person standing not only above country but above politics itself. Obama is, he would have us believe, uniquely able to transcend old, tired, and rutted debates, to think anew, and to bring a fresh, creative approach to the problems of our time. He alone inhabits the upper world.

On the stimulus package, Obama accused the bill's critics of employing “phony arguments and petty politics.” Speaking to House Democrats at a retreat in Williamsburg, Virginia earlier this year, he criticized Republicans for having “come to the table with the same tired arguments and worn ideas” that helped cause the current economic crisis. And in a radio address, Obama continued to criticize Republicans for pushing what he called “tired old theories.”

This charge echoed another one Obama made during the campaign, when he said, “At a moment like this, the last thing we can afford is four more years of the tired, old theory that says we should give more to billionaires and big corporations and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else.” And this, in turn, echoes what Obama said on another occasion, when he declared that “It's not because John McCain doesn't care. It's because John McCain doesn't get it. For over two decades, he's subscribed to that old, discredited Republican philosophy — give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else.”

When talking about health care, Obama framed things this way: “You got a problem with health care: tax cuts. You got problem with education: tax cuts. You got a problem with the economy: tax cuts. Poverty: tax cuts. That's not a policy, it's a dogma, a tired and cynical philosophy.”

This locution is now being picked up by Obama's aides. Prior to the Summit of the Americas gathering in April, Dan Restrepo, the president's top Western Hemisphere adviser on the National Security Council, told FOX News that if a “chance encounter” with Hugo Chavez occurred, Obama's pitch would be, “Let's put the animosities behind us. Let's not have old arguments. Let's not have tired ideological arguments.”

Obama has used this set-up with cultural issues as well. On gay rights, for example, he says that “though we've made progress, there are still fellow citizens — perhaps neighbors or even family members and loved ones — who still hold fast to worn arguments and old attitudes, who fail to see your families like their families and who would deny you the rights that most Americans take for granted.”

This theme is, in fact, an all-purpose one for Obama. “America, our work will not be easy. The challenges we face require tough choices, and Democrats as well as Republicans will need to cast off the worn-out ideas and politics of the past,” he said during his Convention speech. During his announcement speech, Obama took aim at “the smallness of our politics — the ease with which we're distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle big problems.” And during his Inaugural Address, Obama put it this way: “On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.” 

There are, I think, several things to say about all this. The first is that what is most tired, old, and worn out is Obama's lazy rhetorical ploy. He relies on a few stock, and by now hackneyed, phrases to substitute for a serious engagement with issues.

Second, President Obama's words reinforce the impression some of us have that his most dangerous personal characteristic is his other-worldly self-regard. He seems to believe he is unlike, and better than, any others who have come before him. He sees himself as a man of awe-inspiring intellectual honesty, a mind rinsed off of prejudice and bias. While the rest of the country is engaged in petty and trivial fights in political sand-boxes, Obama is America's playground attendant, teaching the rest of us how to act right and think right. It is all rather too much.

Third, Obama – despite his pretensions to the contrary – is a completely orthodox, doctrinaire liberal. His policies are strikingly uncreative and, if I might borrow from the Obama lexicon, tired, old, dogmatic, ideological, and discredited. Is a top-down, government-controlled, tax-and-spend approach to economics fresh, new, and interesting? As President, Obama has shown no intellectual boldness when it comes to his policies. Most of his reforms are hollow and non-existent. He has, in fact, acceded to the committee chairmen on Capitol Hill time and again. More than any president in modern times, he is deferring to barons on the Hill to steer the ship of state. Whatever that qualifies as, it is not a break with worn-out ideas and the politics of the past.

Unlike Bill Clinton and Tony Blair – both of whom intellectually transformed their parties in important ways – Obama is building a bridge to liberalism's past. His policies, if not his style, most resemble Walter Mondale's and Jimmy Carter's. It is quite a thing to witness for a man whose campaign was based on the incantation of hope and change.

Finally, Obama fashions himself as the Great Liberator – freeing us from old arguments, old creeds, and old ways. Mentioning the past is meant to evoke barely disguised contempt; it is the harbor for antediluvian prejudices. Obama alone can remake the rules and remake the world. There is something vaguely utopian and deeply un-conservative in Obama's attitude. And, I might add, deeply unwise and dangerous as well.

Barack Obama, it turns out, is not our Socrates; he is our Sophist-in-Chief. As this becomes clearer over time, more and more people will make their way up the steep and rugged ascent, out of the cave, free of the shadows, and into the sunlight.

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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