Adventures in Rhetoric with Barack Obama

Adventures in Rhetoric with Barack Obama October 19, 2010

My liberal friends recently received a taste of the lecturing, condescension and caricature that Barack Obama has consistently cast in the direction of conservatives.  Progressives needed to “buck up,” said the President in a Rolling Stone interview, and appreciate the truly wonderful things that he had accomplished on their behalf.  To those who felt that Obamacare should have moved toward single-payer, or at least included a government option, he replied that they should not complain just because the reform did not include “all the bells and whistles” they had wanted.  (As though single-payer or a government option would be a mere add-on.)  Instead of taking their concerns and criticisms seriously, President Obama belittled them, psychologized them, and then gave a little criticism in return.  He likened disappointed liberals to children who, when the game does not go their way, pick up the ball and go home.  He was starting to believe that they had not really been true believers after all.

One wonders what world Barack Obama lives in, where he believes that this kind of stern talking-to, dripping with regal condescension, would be well received.  In a sense, however, I was glad that my liberal friends could feel what it is like to be on the receiving end of one of these lectures.

Now let me be clear: I have made it the goal of this blog to speak honestly of both sides of the political aisle.  Are conservatives guilty also of rhetoric that is belittling and deceptive?  Absolutely.  I happen to believe that President Bush sought to be more straightforward and honest, but I do not for a moment believe that this kind of criticism only runs way.  My only point — my only point — is that Obama is guilty — frequently guilty — and should be called on his verbal manipulations.  In this post I will point to two examples:

FIRST, Obama’s diagnosis of the American electorate and why it is upset with his leadership: “Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now, and [part of the reason that] facts and science and argument [do] not seem to be winning the day all the time, is because we’re hard-wired not to think clearly when we’re scared. And the country is scared.”

This is reminiscent of the infamous “bitter clingers” quotation, where Obama, addressing elites in San Francisco, explained the social conservatism of flyover country (“clinging to God and guns”) as due to fear and hopelessness.  The pattern is identical — and a classic interpretive move in academic circles.  You can call it the What’s the Matter with Kansas approach, named for the book which explained the great mystery of why a state would be conservative.  Since the liberal point of view is obviously correct, and any reasoning person would see so, those who choose the conservative point of view are either deceived or deluded.  People do not believe X for the reason they think; they really believe X because they are afraid, insecure, bigoted, hateful, educated, etc.

What is so convenient about this explanatory maneuver is that it lets the (in this case) liberal pretend that people’s rejections of their views have nothing to do with reason.  There is no need to take this rejection seriously; it is not a failing of the ideas themselves, but a failure on the part of liberals (who just don’t understand what it’s like to be so dominated by irrational impulses) to get those ideas through the thick skulls of the plebes.

Obama’s diagnosis of the electorate is classic Obama.  Science and facts and reason are on his side — and apparently his side alone.  Those who oppose him are so paralyzed with fear that they are unable to think clearly.  I don’t think it is unduly partisan to say that this is arrogance on a grand scale.

SECOND, observe the way in which Obama makes his allegations regarding the Chamber of Commerce receiving foreign funding, so that foreign entities could be influencing American elections through the Chamber.  If the first example was one of caricature; this is just an example of duplicitousness.  I cannot break it down better than George Will, so I will just turn it over to him here:

[Obama] recently said: “Just this week, we learned that one of the largest groups paying for these ads regularly takes in money from foreign corporations. So groups that receive foreign money are spending huge sums to influence American elections.” It takes a perverse craftsmanship to write something that slippery. Consider:

“Just this week, we learned. . . .” That is a fib. The fact that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — this is what he is talking about but for some reason is reluctant to say so — receives membership dues from multinational corporations, some of them foreign-owned, is not something Obama suddenly “learned.” It is about as secret as the location of the chamber’s headquarters, a leisurely three-minute walk from the White House.

“Regularly takes in money from foreign corporations.” Obama cites no evidence to refute the chamber’s contention that it sequesters such funds — less than one-twentieth of 1 percent of its budget — from the money it devotes to political advocacy. The AFL-CIO, which spends heavily in support of Democratic candidates, also receives money from associated labor entities abroad, but Obama has not expressed angst about this.

“So groups that receive foreign money are spending huge sums to influence American elections.” The “so” is a Nixonian touch. It dishonestly implies what Obama prudently flinches from charging — that the “huge sums” are foreign money.

Obama’s statement is carefully crafted to give a false impression.  The Chamber receives a very small amount of funds from overseas, and is spending huge sums on this election, but we are obviously supposed to blend these two innocent facts together into one guilty contention — that the chamber is receiving huge sums from foreign corporations to influence American elections.

Such is the rhetoric of Barack Obama.  Subtle, slippery — and, in the end, dishonest.  We cannot accept rhetoric as usual.  We need to call for honesty.  In these last two weeks of campaigning that will be filled with insinuations, guilt by association, digging into college and high school records, anonymous allegations, and the like — we need to call for a charitable and honest conversation on our political future.

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