If only Barack Obama had something to say…
After all, we have never had a president who descended the steps of Air Force One with such catlike agility, hands almost as paws lightly bouncing in synchronization with each elfish footstep. Never has a commander in chief so casually, so confidently approached the podium as if he were popping open his own laptop, his jaw almost in Mussolini style thrust out, with eyes fixed three feet above the heads of the audience — all with just the right mixture of self-assurance and canned humility. No wonder that after all that we expect a “four score and seven years ago” that will match the perfect choreography.
Never has a president so mastered the teleprompter — no easy task in itself — with just the right pauses, followed with a timely ratcheting up of passion, punctuated with a half-smile, a grimace, a laugh. Never has a president mastered both the art of empty bluster and the art of bowing. Never has a president so mastered the patois and cadences of an intended audience: with corporate CEOs, he sounds like a Ivy League Citibank exec; with foreign-policy types, he can out-authenticate the multicultural experts with accentuation like “the Taleeeban” and “Pakeeestan.” Among African-Americans, he drops his g’s, affects the slight drawl of the South, inserts an old-time Southern colloquialism, and follows the mannerisms of a Rev. Wright thundering at Trinity Church. Among Latinos, the “r” is rolled, and accent marks fall in the proper places, better than any third-generation Latino evening-television newsreader.
In short, Obama is the most impressive sophist of his age. In classical rhetoric, when the speaker was about to equivocate, he added an emphatic adjective or parenthetical that he was never more candid and sincere. Sometimes he inserted “on the one hand / on the other hand” to show his awareness of every point of view other than his own. Rhetoricians often projected their own base motives onto others, using straw men like “some will say” or “there are those who…”, as if illiberal enemies were so ubiquitous that there was no mundane need to name them all. Obama has mastered all that and more.
He excels especially in the expression of dramatic anguish. His attorney general is “upset” that he had to resort to tapping the phone records of reporters. Barack Obama is torn because his drones sometime kill those beyond the four thousand intended. Obama is so bothered that his subordinates have gone after journalists that he wants Congress to stop him from himself, by passing a law to prevent his own team from doing what he finds politically advantageous. It is outrageous, Obama thunders, that the IRS is monitoring his political enemies — and so outrageous that the person who oversaw the illegal program had to be promoted to enforce the fiscal protocols of Obamacare. Benghazi really was a terrorist act, because the president right after the killings jailed a filmmaker for it, blamed the attack on spontaneous demonstrations — and yet in passing said he opposed generic terrorist acts. Presto — he could post facto claim that he meant all the time that Benghazi was just one of those preplanned acts of terror.
Sophists tip their hand in jest — and none better than Barack Obama. Beware when he jokes that he will send the IRS after you, or that Predators will guard his daughters. And be even more vigilant of the preemptory denial. Barack Obama can brag ad nauseam about killing Osama bin Laden, because he first swore that he would never “spike the ball” by referencing the hit.
To get things done, first-person pronouns breed to show both concern and control where there is often neither: I just appointed my new team that reports to me about my concerns that I share with advisors of mine. In the world of rhetoric, the more “I,” “me,” “my,” and “mine” appear in the abstract, the more we suspect that the over-referenced speaker has been usually absent in the concrete. There is no “us” or “we” or “our” in Washington these days — although lots of “they” and “them,” the existential enemies of “I” and “me.”
Barack Obama has used executive orders for everything — amnesties, dismissal of the Defense of Marriage Act, recess appointments, the shutting down of coal plants — except the closure of Guantanamo Bay. After five years, we appreciate that Obama really, really does not wish this Bush artifact left open, and yet really, really cannot close it. “They” (fill in the blanks: the right wing, the Republican Congress, the neo-cons) won’t let him. Ditto renditions, tribunals, drones, preventive detentions: Bush did it, and Obama really wants to undo it. The problem is that he just can’t: he’s not a king, tyrant, or dictator, after all — as he reminds his more zealous supporters who, he infers to the rest of us, demand him to be just that. He is our modern-day Caesar who must majestically defer when the people thrust the crown in his hands.
When bad things happen, they just happen. Like Henry II, he wants relief from the Tea Party and reactionary wingnuts; and like the English king, he cannot help it when overzealous knights occasionally and quite wrongly take him at his word, and go a bit overboard. Big government is wonderful as it hires the needy and serves the poor — and yet becomes so big that when bad things happen the president simply could not possibly monitor such an octopus. Federal workers are public servants when they disperse food stamps and disability insurance, only to become unbridled, overzealous clerks when your politics earn a letter from the IRS. Obama professes that he is merely competent and not ideological when he wishes to promote his ideological agenda from gay marriage to blanket amnesty; but he is incompetent and bullied for his ideology when the IRS, or the Justice Department, or the State Department on its own commits the most recent partisan outrage.
Lightning always strikes twice with Obama and his team. His opponent in a senatorial primary had his sealed divorce records leaked — and mysteriously the same thing happened again with his general election opponent. Eric Holder just once went after AP, and, lo and behold, he happened to go after Fox News too. A Cincinnati IRS office went rogue, and — guess what? — so did another one or two elsewhere. Harry Reid mentioned the private tax returns of Mitt Romney — and so did Austan Goolsbee inform us of the Koch Brothers’ 1040s, and so by chance did the IRS go after hundreds of other conservatives.
Obama in Zen-like fashion helped us reach record levels of gas and oil production — by so stopping such new development on public lands that he forced the private sector to work as never before in looking for energy on private lands. Apparently by subsidizing losing green solar and wind companies, Obama somehow made it possible to reach record levels of gas production. Gasoline use per driver is down and that is wonderful — but it has more to do with inflating our tires and getting “tune-ups” than near record level gas prices the last five years that curbed driving.
Teachable moments are everywhere: yes, it is regrettable about tapping phone records, but the slip at least offers occasion to revisit the shield laws. Yes, the IRS has gone rogue, but just maybe some of these right-wing organizations are not really organizations at all. Yes, Benghazi was full of miscommunications, but that is what happens when David Petraeus’s CIA and Hillary Clinton’s State Department work at cross-purposes.
Obama intended to halve the deficit in his first years (remember his charge that George W. Bush on his “lonesome” charged our debts to the bank of China?). Obama still feels terrible that those who started “two wars” prevented his debt-reduction plan. Iran was supposed to shut down its centrifuges at the end of the year, before the G-20 meeting, before the multiparty talks began, in front of the UN meeting. There are red lines in Syria — let’s be perfectly clear about that — and, make no mistake about it, they are not to be crossed. Obama is not mysterious, unpredictable, and sometime dangerous in what he might do and might not; instead he is perfectly clear that there are definite red lines that are neither red nor lines.
We were almost at the forefront of the Google version of the Arab Spring in Cairo, but then made up for that tardiness by rushing into Libya to lead — from behind. We reset something with Russia, and then reset that something reset. Mexico, Obama warns, has good reason to be angry that NRA-types are selling them guns, but perhaps not as many guns as the Obama Department of Justice itself sold them. The War on Terror cannot go on forever, and so it will not. Who won and who lost, we do not yet know, but apparently someone must have. Obama “ended two wars,” but how and under what conditions we are not told. (The easiest way to end a war is to lose it, as George Orwell once said: Ask France about May 1940.)
Why is such rhetoric routine? Nothing is what was advertised. The deficit doubled rather than was halved. There was no summer of recovery. The Affordable Care Act will soon spike rather than reduce health care costs. Shutting down the Bush-Cheney anti-terrorism protocols meant expanding the drone kill list by a factor of ten and embracing the once hated war on terror. My God, who knew that the world was that bad even before George W. Bush took office? In a perennial rebound, unemployment remains high, growth weak, and borrowing massive. Joe Biden must have made it clear that the stimulus trillion-dollars would not be wasted.
How to square that circle?
By making ourselves perfectly clear and making no mistake about …. nothing much at all.