President Obama's Abuse of False 'False Choices'

The “false choice” argument paints well-intentioned people with valid solutions on either side as extremists.

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Yesterday E.J. Dionne wrote about President Obama’s use of a rhetorical device, the “false choice,” and agreed with me that the “false choice” idea can be easily misused. (I had spoken about it on an NPR interview with White House correspondent Ari Shapiro, from which Dionne had quoted.)

[Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Obama.]

Let me give an example of the “false choice” setup that President Obama uses in just about every speech these days, in the same language I used to explain it to my two teenagers:

There are those who say we must clean our rooms every day and every night, foregoing after-school sports and homework, in order to have a spotless room. And there are those who say we must never clean our rooms at all, to the point that dirty laundry reaches to the ceiling and all kinds of rodents move in. I reject these as a false choice. There is a reasonable middle course, one in which we can clean our rooms once a week and still do our homework. Let me be clear: We can clean our rooms on a regular basis and still win the future.

In this example, we don’t know who “those” are who advocate cleaning the room constantly; presumably it is the parents of teenagers. But no parent would ask that a teenager clean their room around the clock. Similarly, “those” who argue against cleaning would probably not want rodents in their rooms. So each side is unnamed and painted as extremist. The unnaming is important because naming who “those” are invites a denial from each side: “I never said that at all.” Then we move to the choosing of the reasonable middle ground, and the “let me be clear” statement, in which the choice is reiterated and “winning the future” is the result.

Here are my problems with the “false choice” as a rhetorical device: First, it is overused to the point of being cliched. According to columnist Ruth Marcus, “President Obama has employed the false-choice device in assessing financial reform, environmental regulation, defense contracting, civil liberties, crime policy, healthcare, the deployment of troops in Iraq, Native Americans, the space program, and, most recently, the situation in Libya,” to name only a few. He hasn’t used it to get his daughters to clean their rooms yet, but watch out. [See editorial cartoons on energy policy.]

Second, rather than bringing the two sides together, the “false choice” argument paints well-intentioned people with valid solutions on either side as extremists. That tends to make those people mad. Third, it sets up a straw-man type of argument by leaving political opponents unnamed. If the president has an argument with a proposal House Speaker John Boehner is advancing, he should say so by name and let the debate begin. If President Obama really believes he can win the contest of ideas, he shouldn’t hide behind a rhetorical stalking horse that distorts his opponents' arguments. People see through it. And, rather than bringing both sides together, it feeds the polarization and resentment we see in politics these days.

Finally, many times the “let me be clear” statement is anything but that. Although he said he was being “clear” in the Libya address, most listeners couldn’t tell you what President Obama chose to do at the end of the list of “false choices” he presented. It feeds the law-professor narrative that is alive and well among many pundits—that the president tends to overthink some of his policies, waiting for others to act first. He explains all sides, but then it’s not clear that he ever made a choice at all. [Are you on the list? Explore the White House visitor guide.]

In the end, E.J. Dionne defended the president’s use of “false choices” as “essential to an honest framing of the choices we truly and urgently need to make”—if “Marcus, Cary, and other false-choice critics push politicians away from using the term either to caricature views they disagree with or to avoid making choices altogether.”

I’m on it.

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