I do not often watch Barack Obama’s speeches. No one at my daughter’s school is allowed to bring a peanut butter sandwich for lunch because some of the students have an aggravated allergy to nuts. So do I, just not to peanuts. So when my son asked if we could watch Obama’s recent, tearful speech about “gun violence in America,” it was with some reluctance, in addition to an assist from Mr. J. Daniels, over ice, that I agreed. But I am glad I did. It was a remarkable performance and it reminded me why Obama was elected in the first place. I find his rote face-this-way, then turn-and-face-that-way technique irritating, but boy is he good with a teleprompter (and, no, “boy” is not a racial slur). Obama is an attractive guy. He looks serious. He seems earnest, yes, but above all pragmatic. [Swivel.] He speaks slowly and in short sentences. [Swivel.] He is articulate. He is concerned. The atmosphere he creates, folks [Swivel], is one of simple reason battling dark forces. We’re against violence. We proposed reasonable solutions. Republicans in Congress made progress impossible.
Students of Quintilian should watch Obama. As a rhetor, he really is good. He even, as Mark Steyn noted admiringly, got off a little joke with perfect timing: The twin brother of Mark Gifford, the husband of Obama’s “dear friend and colleague” Gabby Gifford, is an astronaut and was in space when Mark came to see Obama. Obama asked Mark how often he spoke to his brother.
And he says, well, I usually talk to him every day, but the call was coming in right before the meeting so I think I may have not answered his call — (laughter) — which made me feel kind of bad. (Laughter.) That’s a long-distance call. (Laughter.)
Watch the clip. The timing and delivery are perfect. And in this speech, the world got something a little extra. For the simple price of admission Obama shed a carefully timed tear or two. Really, it was quite a performance: “. . . First graders at Newtown,” he intoned. [one thousand one, one thousand two] “ . . . First graders [voice cracks slightly, eyes well]. “And from every family who never imagined that their loved one would be taken from our lives by a bullet from a gun.” [Pause again. Wipe tear away . . .]
I have to hand it to Obama. He is a supremely effective teleprompter reader. And as I say, it’s not just that he is earnest. Lots of politicians can sound earnest. It’s that he sounds so pragmatic, so reasonable. We have this problem here. I have a solution. Let’s get together and fix the problem. You’re not against fixing the problem, are you?
Rhetoric, as Aristotle said, is the art of persuasion. It deploys arguments and stirs the emotions of an audience in order to elicit assent and compass emotional solidarity. Truth is secondary where it is not an outright impediment, although the appearance or impression of truth is a useful tool in the rhetorician’s bag of tricks. Just so, Obama’s speech on guns was intended to leave the impression of concerned reasonableness but depended at many points on arrant falsehoods. The great Mollie Hemingway, among others, has analyzed some of the many economies Obama’s speech made with the truth. For example, Obama claimed that “a violent felon can buy the exact same weapon over the internet with no background check, no questions asked.” But this, as Hemingway pointed out, is simply not true. Take a look at her excellent piece for the details.
I’d like to focus on another, more insidious, aspect of Obama’s speech. I mean his appeal to the Constitution. Listen:
I want to be absolutely clear at the start . . . I believe in the Second Amendment. It’s there written on the paper. It guarantees a right to bear arms. No matter how many times people try to twist my words around — I taught constitutional law, I know a little about this — (applause) — I get it. But I also believe that we can find ways to reduce gun violence consistent with the Second Amendment.
Gem-like, isn’t it? “I taught constitutional law … I get it.”
One one side we have that assertion. On the other, we have the evidence of seven years of Obama’s administration, which, despite the many protestations to the contrary, has been a monument to the extra-constitutional exercise of executive power. “I was a professor [well, an instructor] in constitutional law, I understand these things.” That’s the gambit. But the reality is government by edict, by fiat, by ukase, abetted by an increasingly onerous regulatory apparatus that has been brought into being and extended over and above the will of the people and its elected legislators. On issue after issue — immigration, health care, guns — Obama has proposed something and if Congress does not enact the legislation he wants, he puts it into effect anyway. Or — take the case of immigration — if Congress or a state legislature enacts laws he does not like, he refuses to enforce them and penalizes states that do.
A full inventory of Obama’s lawlessness can be found in Andrew McCarthy’s “Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment.” It is a sobering litany. But the bottom line is this: Obama is perfectly happy to talk about the Constitution so long as he gets his way. When he doesn’t, he is only too happy to dispense with the Constitutional and pursue the course of action he prefers.
But that is not how the Constitution is supposed to work. The Constitution is a check on governmental power. It is a document whose primary function, in addition to outlining or enumerating the structure of governmental responsibilities, is to safeguard citizens against the coercive power of the state. The framers of the Constitution knew all about the coercive power of the state from their experience with the edicts and ministers of George III. They aimed to preserve the citizens of the United States from kindred usurpations. What Obama does not understand — or, to speak candidly, what he doubtless does understand but, disciple of Saul Alinsky that he is, what he chooses to ignore — is that Constitutional restraints are legitimate and active not only when you agree with a certain policy but also, indeed, especially, when you don’t.
In his speech, Obama, as he often does, appealed on the one hand to non-partisan or trans-partisan unity and consensus. But he went on immediately to demonize “Republicans in the Senate” who voted against an early gun control bill he endorsed. Obama’s response to legislative opposition is not to say “OK, that’s the will of the people’s duly elected officials” but to say, “OK, you won’t agree with me so I am going to go over your heads and do what I want anyway.”
When it comes to the Constitution, Obama does not “get it.” He brazenly gets around it while giving lip service to the ideals he took an oath to preserve, protect, and defend. As an example of reasonable-sounding rhetoric put at the service of a radical, indeed a lawless program of “fundamental transformation,” Obama’s speech about guns was a sort of masterpiece. As an assault on the rights of free citizens, it was an abomination and a warning.