Presidential speeches are tricky things. It is in the nature of things — the nature, that is, of contemporary politics — that they consist largely of more or less empty rhetorical boilerplate punctuated here and there by bursts of forthrightness that, in the usual course of things, have been carefully calibrated by a team of anxious speech writers with their eyes on the polls. George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” speech was memorable chiefly because of that memorable phrase. Ronald Reagan precipitated a cataract of liberal caterwauling when he referred to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” But that memorable phrase concentrated the mind. It was the same with Reagan’s speech in Berlin in 1987. Over the repeated objections of his advisers, he stood near the Berlin Wall, that ostentatious emblem of a monstrous tyranny, and forthrightly demanded that Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down that wall.”
What do we take away from President Obama’s speech about the Iraq War and the U.S. economy last night? It was — at least, it was intended to be — a major statement. A few days ago, the president had announced that the United States would forthwith be withdrawing its combat troops from Iraq. Over the last few months, it has become ever clear to the American people that the president’s vaunted “stimulus” plan has failed to stimulate anything other than continued high unemployment and staggering deficits. Here was his chance to make his case on prime time. How did he do?
I thought it one of the worst speeches in modern memory. Not only was it long on empty boilerplate, it was scrubbed clean of anything memorable or forthright. It also flirted shamelessly with incoherence. You can find the text of the whole speech here. I’d like to concentrate on the opening few paragraphs and add a few words about the denouement, such as it was, of the performance. “Tonight,” the president began, “I’d like to talk to you about the end of our combat mission in Iraq, the ongoing security challenges we face, and the need to rebuild our nation here at home.” OK. Three items: the war, security threats, the dismal economic situation here in the U.S. Then what?
I know this historic moment comes at a time of great uncertainty for many Americans. We have now been through nearly a decade of war. We have endured a long and painful recession. And sometimes in the midst of these storms, the future that we are trying to build for our nation – a future of lasting peace and long-term prosperity may seem beyond our reach.
But this milestone should serve as a reminder to all Americans that the future is ours to shape if we move forward with confidence and commitment. It should also serve as a message to the world that the United States of America intends to sustain and strengthen our leadership in this young century.
Notice the gap or chasm between these two paragraphs: “a future of lasting peace and long-term prosperity” that “may seem beyond our reach” followed by . . . what? A “milestone”? What milestone? “A future of lasting peace,” etc. that may seem “beyond our reach”? Or was it the “storms” of the Iraq war and economic stagnation? Are they the “milestone”? Why, whatever it is, should that marker remind us (“all Americans”!) of anything, let alone that “the future is ours to shape if we move forward with confidence and commitment”? Is that really any better than Roderick Spode’s assurance (in The Code of the Woosters, I think) that “Nothing stands between us and our victory except defeat! Tomorrow is a new day! The future lies ahead!”
Every politician has his followers. Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps was as impressed by Spode’s little tautologies — “D’you know, I never thought of that” — as Frank Rich or Paul Krugman is by Obama.
When P.G. Wodehouse does it, the performance is funny. But translate Spode or Barmy into real life and what do you get? A president of the United States who says with a straight face that the departure of the U.S. Army from a war-torn area added to the worst recession since the Great Depression, should be a milestone (maybe he meant “millstone”?) inspiring confidence in the American people, and, what’s more, should reassure the Iraqi people and send message to our allies and enemies alike: “It should also serve as a message to the world that the United States of America intends to sustain and strengthen our leadership in this young century.”
Why should it send such a message? You’ve just withdrawn your military support for Iraq. Doesn’t that send exactly the contrary message, that, far from sustaining and strengthening our leadership, we intend to renege on our responsibilities wherever possible?
Possibly, such incoherence was calculated. Maybe the president’s speech writers thought, “We’ll soften ’em up with a few contradictory statements, pretending to say ‘Day’ but really insinuating ‘Night.’ That way we’ll sow confusion and no one will be able to pin us down about anything.”
Perhaps. It would, at any rate, help explain the egregious paragraph with which the President summarized the burden of his speech:
Our most urgent task is to restore our economy, and put the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs back to work. To strengthen our middle class, we must give all our children the education they deserve, and all our workers the skills that they need to compete in a global economy. We must jumpstart industries that create jobs, and end our dependence on foreign oil. We must unleash the innovation that allows new products to roll off our assembly lines, and nurture the ideas that spring from our entrepreneurs. This will be difficult. But in the days to come, it must be our central mission as a people, and my central responsibility as President.
Right. We have to “jumpstart industries that create jobs” but your policies on energy, taxation, government regulation and government spending, Mr. President, have assured that no industries will be jumpstarted and that job creation will stagnate. “We must unleash innovation,” you say, but your policies have made it all-but-impossible for businesses or individuals to innovate. You talk about nurturing entrepreneurs, but your war on Wall Street, your fiscal incontinence, and expansion of intrusive government bureaucracy assure that entrepreneurs will be stymied at every turn.
It was, as I say, funny when P.G. Wodehouse dramatized Spode’s spluttering incoherence. But when a president of the United States indulges in it, the absurdity is malevolent rather then comic.
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