Roger’s Rules

The Meaning of Obama, Part II, with a note from J. L. Austin and an epitaph for cognitive dissonance

Last month, President Obama assured the world that “words must mean something.”

Yes, but what?

The President has just informed us, in his most earnest tones, that current U.S. deficit spending is “unsustainable.” More amazing news followed: government borrowing will mean higher interest rates for U.S. consumers as foreign countries shy away from investing in the United States. He even had a line about “mortgaging our children’s future with more and more debt.”

Now, I believe there is a lot to be said for all of these things. The debt carried by the United States is indeed “unsustainable.” Interest rates are almost certain to rise; the gusty noise you hear offstage is, I’m told on reliable authority, that great asset acid, inflation, just waiting to make a comeback. And when I am not worrying about how I am going to pay for our children’s college education I worry about what sort of country we are preparing to bequeath them: what will their tax burden be in 2025, say?

As I say, these are all good points. The question is, does Barack Obama have the right to raise them? Democrats and their shills in the legacy (formerly the mainstream) media wailed and wailed about the deficits run up by the Bush administration. They had my sympathy, frankly. Much as I admire President Bush — and I do admire him — he spent money like a drunken Democrat.

Or so I thought. It turns out that Bush was a rank amateur when it came to profligacy. His $400 billion deficit, which seemed like a lot of money at the time, is not even a weekend’s “stimulus” bill for Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid & Co. A week or so ago, the White House told us that the budget deficit for the current fiscal year would be $1.75 trillion dollars ($1,750,000,000,000). Somebody forgot to include the party favors, though, because a few days later that estimate was raised to $1.84 trillion ($1,840,000,000,000), a difference of some $90 billion, or more than 4 times the $17 billion in “savings” that Obama announced with such fanfare recently. After the laughter subsided — after all, the President’s Potemkin cuts amount to 1/2 of 1 percent of his budget — Obama shot back: “In Washington, I guess [$17 billion is] considered trivial. Outside of Washington, that’s still considered a lot of money.”

Right on both counts, Prez! In Washington, $17 billion is considered trivial. To the rest of us, however, who will eventually be called upon to pony up for the dough, it is, as you say, a lot of money. That’s exactly the problem: Washington spends it, we pay for it.

The English essayist William Hazlitt once observed that “those who lack delicacy hold us in their power.” Most of us, encountering someone who lectures us about “unsustainable” levels of debt, “mortgaging our children’s future,” etc., expect that if we scratch the chap we find a fiscal conservative.

That, as Barack Obama demonstrates, would be naive. Obama may trundle over to Arizona to deliver a commencement address in which he warns students about those who “started living on credit, instead of building up savings.” But a look at the Obama Family Finances shows that he did a lot of living on credit himself. James Taranto, writing in his “Best of the Web” column, quotes this report:

A close examination of their finances shows that the Obamas were living off lines of credit along with other income for several years until 2005, when Obama’s book royalties came through and Michelle received her 260% pay raise at the University of Chicago. This was also the year Obama started serving in the U.S. Senate. . . .

Watson, what do you make of that conjunction: Michelle’s 260 percent pay raise and Obama’s ascension to the taxpayer-funded trough? Eyebrow raising? It got a bit of comment during the campaign. But the Hope and Change Express had gained far too much momentum to be derailed by any such . . . irregularity.

Am I too fastidious? Was it an irregularity? At the time, Bryon York reminded us that “Mrs. Obama’s compensation at the University of Chicago Hospital, where she is a vice president for community affairs, jumped from $121,910 in 2004, just before her husband was elected to the Senate, to $316,962 in 2005, just after he took office.” Why wasn’t that news to, say, The New York Times?

Water under the bridge by now, of course. But still. As we try to come to terms with the Obama Phenomenon and unravel the riddle wrapped in a mystery inside the enigma with which he presents the republic, it is worth facing up to the fact that it doesn’t matter what he says. “Words must mean something,” he said when the North Koreans launched their ballistic missile a few weeks back. But what must they mean? I think of a withering remark from the philosopher J. L. Austin: “There’s the bit where you say it and the bit where you take it back.”

Strophe: Our level of debt is “unsustainable.” Antistrophe: My budget will saddle us with more debt than all past presidents combined, from George Washington through George W. Bush.

Strophe: You mustn’t live on credit and neglect to save. Antistrophe: I will live on credit, spending more than I earn, until such time as I can more than double my wife’s salary by funneling taxpayer money to her place of employment.

Strophe: Military tribunals for terrorists are an outrage; as president I will put an end to them. Antistrophe: Military tribunals are necessary for our national security.

It was the psychologist Leon Festinger, I believe, who coined the term “cognitive dissonance.” That’s the uncomfortable feeling we get when trying to entertain contradictory ideas. X and at the same time not-X. The discomfort is a salubrious reminder that reality counts for something, that you cannot live a contradiction.

Or can you? The spectacle of Barack Hussein Obama might suggest otherwise. Watching his pas de deux with himself is to understand that cognitive dissonance can be a vocation as well as a warning.

I can’t help worrying, though, that making it your vocation is only the first act of a drama that ends very badly indeed.