Obama and His Straw Men

The president's rhetoric too often relies on deflection.

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President Barack Obama speaks about the National Security Administration's program of collecting Americans' phone records in San Jose, Calif. on June 6, 2013.
President Barack Obama speaks about the National Security Administration's program of collecting Americans' phone records in San Jose, Calif. on June 6, 2013.

Have you ever noticed that President Obama often tells us that what we think is wrong? There he was the other day, being asked about the National Security Agency's gigantic Internet and telephone surveillance programs, and a key component of his remarks was: "Nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That's not what this program is about." This is a rhetorical device Obama often uses, and it tells us more than I think he intends.

Even before the wiretapping/electronic surveillance scandal broke last week I had been struck by Obama's peculiar habit of creating rhetorical straw men in a wide range of topics that he then tries to knock down. To wit:

  • "These are no slouches," the president said, introducing his nominees for the D.C. Court of Appeals last week. "These are no hacks."
  • "There's no magic formula for dealing with an extraordinarily violent and difficult situation like Syria's," he said in May. "If there was, I think the prime minister and I would have already acted on it and it would already be finished."
  • "I am not a dictator, I'm the president," the not dictator told a CNN correspondent in April, explaining why budget negotiations with Republican congressional leaders weren't going well. He then went on to explain that he couldn't "do a Jedi mind meld" or "have the Secret Service block the door" of the negotiating room.
  • In an interview about deporting undocumented immigrants in February, he told an interviewer: "The problem is that I'm the president of the United States, I'm not the emperor of the United States. My job is to execute laws that are passed."
  • Speaking on immigration reform back in 2010, he said, "Anybody who tells you it's going to be easy or that I can wave a magic wand and make it happen, hasn't been paying attention to how this town works."
  • [See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]

    In these comments, Obama's tone varies from that of a cheating husband discovered in a broom closet with the babysitter ("It's not what you think…") to the weary voice of the parent explaining to the pre-schooler that he can't stop the rain. ("I can't just wave a magic wand and make it go away.") This device is defensive and condescending, and it's not particularly persuasive. So why does he rely on it so often? Several thoughts occurred to me and none of them is particularly good:

    • Perhaps he thinks this helps him frame the debate by defining or interpreting what the other side thinks. But his interpretation almost always exaggerates the opposing views in order to make them appear ridiculous on their face. A lot of politicians like to do this. And while it shows your partisan zeal, it has the countereffect of showing that you are not a credible narrator of the situation. And credibility is a vital component of leadership.
    • Possibly he wants to make sure people understand that the issues he is dealing with are difficult to solve. But this makes him sound like he is whining. He was elected president precisely to deal with difficult issues. If a problem has risen to the attention of the President of the United States, then it is by definition a difficult one. The question we all have is: What are you, Mr. President, proposing to do about it?
    • He is trying to "manage expectations." Under-promising and over-delivering is a tactic of middle-managers across the globe, not a leadership tactic. Leaders establish expectations themselves. For example: In calling to put an American on the moon before 1970, John F. Kennedy didn't try to lower expectations for the nation's space program; he challenged NASA's managers and congressional leadership to meet his expectations. And he certainly didn't huff to the press in 1961: "Well I can't just fly to moon. I would if I could, but anyone who thinks so just doesn't understand how gravity works."
    • [Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

      The most troubling possibility, however, is that he thinks that we think he is capable of magic or Jedi mind tricks. And this would suggest he is firmly locked in the presidential cocoon of sycophants telling him this. Having won reelection and with his name never to appear on a ballot again, the only measures to challenge what his inner circle tells him are approval ratings (which have been declining steadily since December) and the 2014 congressional elections – which are subject to all sorts of factors and interpretations.

      For a man who has a reputation as one of the great presidential communicators, Obama must understand the power of words. That he so often resorts to language that projects a mixture of defensiveness and condescension, when his audience is looking for strength and vision, is very troubling indeed. We need our president to do better.

      • Read Robert Schlesinger: NSA PRISM, Phone Records Spying Are Built on Corporate Surveillance
      • Read Pat Garofalo: Poll Shows Most Americans Think Gay Marriage Is Inevitable
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