By Elvin Lim
President Barack Obama’s second Oval Office address to the nation wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t the game-changer to his declining approval ratings which despondent Democrats were hoping for.
The speech was a valiant attempt to connect Iraq with unemployment (guns with butter), but it came off to many as meandering and confused. The reason is one that has plagued the Obama presidency from the day it started talking about post-partisanship. It is not so much that the zero-sum relationship between guns and butter was too subtle a link to explore on television, but that the president was cagey about frontally stating it.
His opening line encapsulates his equivocation: “Tonight, 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.” This sentence is only more obfuscating that it is confusing.
It was only at the start of the last third of his speech (paragraph 22 of 30) when he finally got down to explaining the pivot ambiguously suggested in his opening thesis statement, saying, “We have spent over a trillion dollars at war, often financed by borrowing from overseas. This, in turn, has short-changed investments in our own people, and contributed to record deficits.”
Yes, guns and butter are a zero-sum priority game. This is not about the president’s ability or inability to multi-task foreign and domestic policy milieus. The point (had it been explicitly made) is that if we spend money on guns, then the revenue collected from our taxes cannot be spent elsewhere to boost the domestic economy. This is the point Obama was trying to make, but he was so cagey about making it that one wonders why he even tried.
Whether or not Obama is correct that the money spent in Iraq may have been better spent elsewhere is besides the point. Obama believed it enough to gingerly suggest it in his opening line, but was embarrassed enough for believing it that he hid his belief that the money spent on guns would have been better invested in domestic infrastructure by borrowing the foreign-policy language of “rebuild(ing) our nation here at home” to cover up the point that he maybe wanted to make. (That was argument by exemplification.) The president ended up confusing his friends and foes alike because he used an Oval Office speech to work out his internal demons.
Everyone knows that “stimulus spending” is no longer a popular word, but Obama was probably naive if he actually thought that he could make an idea popular again by calling it something else. A rose by any other name …
The more encompassing explanation would be that Obama was trying to exercise what I would call a Legion Theory of Representation. He represents many points of views, for he is many. Deep down he is a liberal and a half, but he feels compelled to give the other side a fairing. But this causes him so much internal ideological dissonance that he ends up stabbing himself in the foot with words that meander toward nothing because his words are no longer used to communicate but to postpone communication.
Conservative commentators were the first – and rightly so – to have called the President out on his tortured reasoning. If all he could summon in terms of an olive branch to President Bush was his overture, “no one could doubt President Bush’s support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security,” it is very clear that his right hand is not at all happy with what his left hand is doing. The president’s intuition and his conscience are not in consonance with each other, and he should find some way to reconcile the two.
The curious thing is that most leaders who fail to rise to the occasion fail because they haven’t found their voice. Obama has a voice, but he has chosen not to use it but sort of to use it, in schizophrenic spurts. If a nation at war with itself cannot stand, a president at war with himself cannot lead.
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. Read Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.