The Obama Watch

Listening to Obama

When the perils of presidential oratory cannot be avoided.

By 11.30.10

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President Obama gave a speech Monday, which isn't particularly newsworthy in itself, as part of the president's job is to be Speechgiver-in-Chief. But this speech was different, at least for me, simply because I listened to part of it.

Not listening to presidential speeches is a habit I developed during the Clinton administration in an effort to preserve my sanity. It was my wife who suggested this non-listening policy after she watched me seething with fury and muttering curses throughout Bill Clinton's 1996 State of the Union address.

Presidential historians will recall that as Clinton's "era of big government is over" speech. For me, it was the "lying two-faced bastard" speech. To list and refute every falsehood in that speech would require more words than I'm willing to expend on the effort. It would be easier to say, as Mary McCarthy said of Lillian Hellman, that every word is a lie, including "and" and "the."

Just one example: "I challenge this Congress," Clinton proclaimed on Jan. 23, 1996, "to send me a bipartisan welfare reform bill that will really move people from welfare to work and do the right thing by our children. I will sign it immediately." Clinton vetoed welfare-reform twice and did not sign it until August, when Congress sent it to him for the third time, and the only reason Clinton signed it was to keep it from being used against him as an issue in his fall re-election campaign.

And, of course, after declaring the end of big government, Clinton's speech then went on to call for, inter alia, raising the minimum wage, increasing funding for education, and imposing various mandates on health insurance companies. The 1996 speech established a pattern for all subsequent Clinton State of the Union speeches -- he would begin with rhetorical salutes to fiscal restraint, bipartisanship and moderation, then finish with a grocery-list of new programs and liberal policies he wanted Congress to enact, regardless of whatever taxpayer expense they would require or regulatory burdens they would impose.

Actually listening to Clinton's speeches was an infuriating experience that, alas, became an occupational hazard after November 1997, when I joined the staff of the Washington Times. It became part of my job to edit the transcripts of Clinton's major speeches for publication, and colleagues got used to hearing me grumble and curse throughout those ordeals. And, in some ways, the problem became even worse after George W. Bush became president.

Bush had a way of proposing transparently un-conservative policies while insisting that these were, in fact, logical expressions of America's founding ideals. The No Child Left Behind Act -- crafted with the pre-approval of that eminent Burkean, Ted Kennedy -- was the first of many such Bush-era sellouts of conservative principle. Republicans nowadays scoff at Obama's "green" rhetoric, but it was Bush who said the following in his 2007 State of the Union address:

For too long, our nation has been dependent on foreign oil.… It's in our vital interest to diversify America's energy supply, and the way forward is through technology. We must continue changing the way America generates electric power by even greater use of clean-coal technology; solar and wind energy; and clean, safe nuclear power. We need to press on with battery research for plug-in and hybrid vehicles and expand the use of clean-diesel vehicles and biodiesel fuel.… At the same time, we need to reform and modernize fuel economy standards for cars the way we did for light trucks and conserve up to 8.5 billion more gallons of gasoline by 2017.… [New] technologies will help us become better stewards of the environment, and they will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change.

The only real difference between Bush and Obama on this score is that, in 2007, there was no recession to provide a Keynesian rationale for billions of dollars in deficit-funded stimulus spending on "green" technology. But if Bush was right in 2007 about the urgent need "to confront the serious challenge of global climate change," why had it been so important to defeat Al Gore in 2000? What's the point of voting Republican, if the Republican you're electing gets into office and demands implementation of the Democrats' policy agenda?

That painful shoe is now firmly on the other foot, and it is Democrats who are questioning their partisan loyalty after President Obama's speech Monday, announcing a two-year freeze on federal civilian employees. For several months, Republicans had been advocating a federal pay freeze -- and being denounced by Democrats for doing so. The freeze was certain to be one of the first legislative proposals pushed by John Boehner's new GOP majority as soon as they took office in January, and so Obama cleverly decided to push the outgoing Democrat majority to enact it as a lame-duck measure, thus depriving Republicans of credit for it.

Furthermore, since the federal pay freeze is popular with voters -- as White House pollsters surely told the president -- Obama now positions himself to claim that he took the first step toward a new era of bipartisan cooperation, and to cast Republicans as irresponsible obstructionists for not reciprocating in some way by supporting any of his agenda items. That this is utterly phony can be demonstrated by imagining what would have happened had Boehner and the House GOP been allowed to bring forward the pay-freeze legislation early next year: Once passed by the House, the bill would have forced Senate Democrats facing re-election in 2012 to either vote "yes" (to avoid being on the unpopular side of the issue) or vote "no" (to placate their liberal base). Assuming that several Democrats would be forced to support the pay-freeze, Obama then would be presented with a nominally bipartisan bill. If he vetoed it, he'd be accused of ignoring the will of the American people, but if he signed it, he'd be portrayed as a weakling who knuckled under to Republicans.

All of this Obama avoids by calling on the lame-duck Congress to enact the pay-freeze. Many of the Democrats who vote "yes" on this bill will be those who have already been defeated in the mid-terms, so they'll suffer no political consequence for voting in favor of the same legislation they denounced and opposed just a few months earlier. And as to other Democrats with an eye on 2012 re-election for whom a "yes" vote may be politically convenient, they can explain it to their liberal supporters by saying that they were, after all, only doing what the Democratic president asked.

So the pay-freeze gesture clearly a product of a cynical political calculation, and some of his liberal supporters were honest enough to say so. ("Obama Flunks Economics with Pointless Federal Wage Freeze" was the headline on one liberal blog.) The speech in which Obama announced this policy shift was, if possible, even more cynical than the political calculations behind it.

He talked about a Tuesday meeting with Republican leaders and his hope -- what is it with this guy and "hope"? -- that the meeting would "mark a first step towards a new and productive working relationship." Twenty-two months into his presidency, Obama has suddenly developed a desire for a "working relationship" with Republicans. These are the same Republicans that the president spent the entire fall campaign season describing as idle Slurpee-sippers unwilling to help get the nation's economy out of the ditch into which they had driven it.

Now evidently willing to forgive and forget the recklessness of these Republican drivers, Obama spoke Monday of "a shared responsibility," of acting in a "cooperative and serious way" to meet the "fundamental challenges" confronting the nation. Among those challenges is ensuring that "we're not dragged down by long-term debt," the president said: "This is a challenge that both parties have a responsibility to address -- to get federal spending under control and bring down the deficits that have been growing for most of the last decade."

The nerve of this guy, huh? Obama occupied himself from Inauguration Day onward with promoting a Keynesian program of deficit-funded "stimulus" spending -- adding up to more than a trillion dollars in new debt -- and now he declares that "both parties have a responsibility… to get federal spending under control." Does anyone recall Obama ever lecturing Nancy Pelosi's Democrats about that responsibility?

Obama also claimed Monday that he was now "interested in hearing ideas from my Republican colleagues… about how we continue to grow the economy and how we put people back to work" -- as if, for the past two years, Republicans had sat in utter silence as to their ideas for promoting economic growth. The president spoke of "tough decisions" and "a bipartisan conversation" as he approached his peroration, which included a rather surprising interpretation of the recent election:

We can't afford to fall back onto the same old ideologies or the same stale sound bites. We're going to have to budge on some deeply held positions and compromise for the good of the country. We're going to have to set aside the politics of the moment to make progress for the long term. And as I've often said, we're going to have to think not just about the next election, but about the next generation, because if there's anything the American people said this month, it's that they want their leaders to have one single focus: making sure their work is rewarded so that the American Dream remains within their reach. It would be unwise to assume they prefer one way of thinking over another. That wasn't the lesson that I took when I entered into office, and it's not the lesson today.

While Obama warned against "think[ing] about the next election," it is evidently the most recent election he wishes to ignore. So he insists that the voters who went to the polls on Nov. 2 and delivered a devastating negative referendum on the Democratic policy agenda cannot be assumed to have made a meaningful choice between the two parties. Even when the GOP picked up 63 House seats -- the biggest Republican gain since 1938 -- Obama wishes us to believe that the electorate did not thereby demonstrate a preference for "one way of thinking over another." Such is the counterfactual world presented to Americans by their president.

Given my professed habit of not listening to presidential speeches, readers may wonder why I listened to this one. Well, I just happened to be working in my basement office when Obama came on the television and, because my kids have lost the remote control to the TV in my office, it would have been a hassle to interrupt my work to get up and change the channel. I tried to concentrate on my work and ignore what the president was saying, but enough of it seeped into my consciousness to inspire exasperated curses.

So I decided to turn lemons into lemonade and wrote this column which, in keeping with the spirit of the holiday season, I will conclude with a hint to my wife: A new remote control makes an excellent stocking stuffer.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.