OUPblog > History > America > Walking the Tightrope: Barack Obama on the Choice between our Safety and our Ideals

Walking the Tightrope: Barack Obama on the Choice between our Safety and our Ideals

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at Presidential rhetoric. Read his previous OUPblogs here.

On April 16, President Barack Obama ordered the release of Bush-era Office of Legal Council memos on counter-terror tactics, and in a statement, declared that “A democracy as resilient as ours must reject the false choice between our security and our ideals,” echoing his inaugural position that “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”

This is a perfect example of political equivocation, a rhetorical gesture that means one thing to liberals and another to conservative. For liberals, they heard the president say that we will not allow alleged threats to our safety to become the excuse for an assault to our ideals. For conservatives, they heard that just because the president must do whatever he must to keep Americans safe does not mean that we must compromise our ideals. And so everybody applauded Obama’s lyrical line on inauguration day.

In his April 16 statement, President Obama proceeded to explain his rationale for releasing the memos: “In releasing these memos, it is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution.”

The President is balancing on a precarious tightrope. In releasing the memos he is trying to appease a liberal base looking for transparency and some say vengeance, and in guaranteeing those who used harsh interrogation tactics immunity from prosecution, he is trying to assure conservatives that he is serious about maintaining the morale of those who serve our country. Ironic, because though the president was trying to seal a can of worms, he may have re-opened it.

This is the acrobatics of modern politics. A gesture to one side, and a wink to another is Obama’s only way out. The release of these memos was a gesture of good faith to Obama’s liberal base who want justice, and yet a show of solidarity with conservatives who do not want to see a witchhunt. Consider that the real action of deciding who will be prosecuted has been conveniently delegated to Attorney General Eric Holder. Decisive action will force even the most talented acrobat to fall off the tightrope – for it requires a consequential choice. But Obama can remain suspended in mid-air – in his presidential honeymoon – as long as the American people are content with mere gestures. This may not be the case this time, because liberals are outraged at what the memos detail and this will put immense pressure on Holder to initiate some high-level prosecutions, just as this has mobilized the conservative base to preempt an impending witchhunt.

For several decades now, we have been too tolerant of presidents who have excelled in rhetorical shape-shifting in order to appear all things to all people. This has occurred in part because the American people have come to believe that presidential words amount to presidential deeds. Words easily permit ambiguity; actions do not. We have bought an artificial consensus at a high cost: politics has become a spectacle of acrobatic tomfoolery. The American people appear unenthralled by Obama’s performance this time though, and while democracy will benefit from this, it is not good news for the president.

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