The president likes to talk a lot about "false choices." Here's a recent example, from a speech on the environment he gave in March: "The bottom line is this: There will always be people in this country who say we've got to choose between clean air and clean water and a growing economy, between doing right by our environment and putting people back to work. And I'm here to tell you that is a false choice. With smart, sustainable policies, we can grow our economy today and protect our environment for ourselves and our children."
There's a problem with this rhetorical device. When you paint your own position as "smart" and your opponents' positions as unreasonable—is there really anyone who believes that we should stop putting people back to work because we need clean air, or who believes economic growth means an end to all clean water standards?— it tends to make your opponents angry, because you've mischaracterized their position in order to polarize the choices. It's divisive.
Obama's classic setup usually includes unnamed straw men, as in "there are those who say…" There's a reason he never names who "those" people are: because most of them would hold a press conference to say that the president had distorted their position. Better to leave names out of it. And so he has used the anonymous "false choices" setup over and over again, on topics ranging from financial reform and the environment to government procurement, civil liberties, crime, healthcare, South American democracies, the space program, Iraq, American Indians, and our policy in Libya. It's as if every policy decision involves a false choice.
In fact, if you go to that part of the White House website containing President Obama's speeches and do a search, the phrase "false choice" pops up 260 times.
Since Mitt Romney emerged as the Republican nominee, the president has continued setting up the false choice for voters, even if he doesn't use those exact words. On one side, you have Barack Obama. On the other, you have Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, whom his campaign has portrayed as extremists in favor of autistic kids "fending for themselves," and men who want to "gut" education, give trillions in tax cuts to "millionaires and billionaires," roll back regulations, outsource American jobs overseas, deny women's rights, make it more difficult to vote, force millions of Americans to lose their health insurance, and put African-Americans "back in chains."
That kind of demonization is a far cry from the president's own words on civility in politics when he spoke in Tucson, Ariz., in 2011 after Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot. "At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized—at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do—it's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we're talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds," he said.
Since his speech in Tucson, Obama campaign ads and spokespeople have speculated that Romney committed a felony in falsifying SEC documents, speculated that he did not pay taxes, and alleged that his business practices resulted in the closing of a plant which caused a couple to lose insurance and a woman subsequently died of cancer. When each of these claims was exposed as false, the Obama campaign never retracted or apologized. It just watched with glee as Romney's negatives rose.
In doing so, the Obama campaign presented the choice between the president and Romney as the ultimate false choice: between his own smart, reasonable, bipartisan policies and the radical, cruel, "social Darwinist" policies of Romney and Ryan.
But now there are two problems with naming Romney and Ryan as the straw men in a "false choice" for voters. First, it poisons relations with the people you are naming, as Vice President Biden did so rudely with Ryan. Does anyone doubt that Biden can't stand Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, as they head into negotiations to avert the fiscal cliff at the end of this year? Suddenly a vote to re-elect the Democrats becomes a vote for more incivility and gridlock.