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By Jay Cost

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Obama Needs a New Speechwriter

There has been a tension in the rhetoric of President Obama since he was inaugurated. He wants to be a post-partisan President, assuming that the opposition is well-intentioned and in honest disagreement with him. Yet he frequently implies that they are motivated by political calculation of narrow interests. Either of these is a perfectly serviceable rhetorical strategy - the problem is that he often takes both tacks in the same speech.

If we take a closer look at his speech yesterday, we'll see that it manifested itself once again. This is from early on:

Unfortunately, faced with an uncertain threat, our government made a series of hasty decisions. And I believe that those decisions were motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people. But I also believe that - too often - our government made decisions based upon fear rather than foresight, and all too often trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions. Instead of strategically applying our power and our principles, we too often set those principles aside as luxuries that we could no longer afford. And in this season of fear, too many of us - Democrats and Republicans; politicians, journalists and citizens - fell silent.

It's not impossible to reconcile these two statements, but it is pretty damn hard. The fact that they come in the same paragraph is just plain sloppy.

He says later on:

And even under President Bush, there was recognition among members of his Administration - including a Secretary of State, other senior officials, and many in the military and intelligence community - that those who argued for these tactics were on the wrong side of the debate, and the wrong side of history. We must leave these methods where they belong - in the past. They are not who we are. They are not America.
The President is skirting the shoals of ad hominem here. I suppose that you could say that those who advocated these policies were simply delusional or fundamentally misguided about what is and what is not appropriate in this country - that way, you don't have to suggest that they are, in some sense, un-American. But that certainly weakens his initial declaration of good faith: they meant well, they just don't understand what America is all about? Talk about your back-handed compliment!

This tension increases dramatically by the end:

And we will be ill-served by some of the fear-mongering that emerges whenever we discuss this issue. Listening to the recent debate, I've heard words that are calculated to scare people rather than educate them; words that have more to do with politics than protecting our country. So I want to take this opportunity to lay out what we are doing, and how we intend to resolve these outstanding issues. I will explain how each action that we are taking will help build a framework that protects both the American people and the values that we hold dear. And I will focus on two broad areas: first, issues relating to Guantanamo and our detention policy; second, issues relating to security and transparency.

How can he reconcile this with the assumption of good faith? If you're fear-mongering for calculated, political reasons - how can you be "motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people?" In theory, he could separate the implementers of the policies from those who defend them now - but those are the same people. Was Dick Cheney motivated by good faith then, but political calculation now? How does that work, considering that he was shortly to stand for reelection then, but not now? This all seems like an enormous stretch - which makes it a stretch upon a stretch upon a stretch...

If he hasn't already by now, he pushes the good faith assumption past the breaking point by offering another straw-man attack, which regrettably is becoming one of his stand-bys.

We see that, above all, in how the recent debate has been obscured by two opposite and absolutist ends. On one side of the spectrum, there are those who make little allowance for the unique challenges posed by terrorism, and who would almost never put national security over transparency. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who embrace a view that can be summarized in two words: "anything goes." Their arguments suggest that the ends of fighting terrorism can be used to justify any means, and that the President should have blanket authority to do whatever he wants - provided that it is a President with whom they agree.

Tom Maguire pwns this claim:

Obama characterizes the national debate as having divided us into two poles - the left believes that almost no national security issue takes precedence over transparency and the right has a view that can be summed as "Anything Goes".

Really? "Anything goes"? Did he actually read the OLC enhanced interrogation memos, which made it clear that lots of things wouldn't go?

This pretty well obliterates any notion that the President is treating his interlocutors with the presumption of good faith. He says he is, but the rest of his speech doesn't follow through - which makes the initial assertion sound like haughty, hypocritical moralizing.

He pulled a similar trick during the stimulus debate, which makes me think that it's time the President get a new speechwriter, or at least an editor - especially for topics where public debate is intense. Having it both ways like this just seems intellectually lazy, and it makes for a weaker argument. Either treat your opponents with the good faith assumption, or don't. You can't do both, especially in the same paragraph! No number of baroque flourishes about keeping the faith during the Revolution can change that.

And those flights of fancy are sure getting old, aren't they? They were great and all on the night of the Iowa Caucus, but it's been years of the same tune again and again. The Beatles had a string of big hits from 1963-65 that all sounded the same - but by '66 George was playing the sitar and bitching about taxes. That was a change for the better, and a lesson for the President.

How many more times in the next four years do we have to hear this kind of shopworn sermonizing:

I stand here today as someone whose own life was made possible by these documents. My father came to our shores in search of the promise that they offered. My mother made me rise before dawn to learn of their truth when I lived as a child in a foreign land. My own American journey was paved by generations of citizens who gave meaning to those simple words - "to form a more perfect union." I have studied the Constitution as a student; I have taught it as a teacher; I have been bound by it as a lawyer and legislator. I took an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution as Commander-in-Chief, and as a citizen, I know that we must never - ever - turn our back on its enduring principles for expedience sake.

I make this claim not simply as a matter of idealism. We uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and keeps us safe. Time and again, our values have been our best national security asset - in war and peace; in times of ease and in eras of upheaval.

Fidelity to our values is the reason why the United States of America grew from a small string of colonies under the writ of an empire to the strongest nation in the world.

It is the reason why enemy soldiers have surrendered to us in battle, knowing they'd receive better treatment from America's armed forces than from their own government.

It is the reason why America has benefited from strong alliances that amplified our power, and drawn a sharp and moral contrast with our adversaries.

It is the reason why we've been able to overpower the iron fist of fascism, outlast the iron curtain of communism, and enlist free nations and free people everywhere in common cause and common effort.

Yada yada yada. I've heard all this before - many times, in fact. He goes over his biography, connects it in "dramatic" fashion to the American story, then links it to whatever policy he's pushing. This was powerful stuff...two years ago. Now, it's the paint by numbers version of the Obama Speech.

The Beatles were inspired to change their schtick after they met Bob Dylan, which prompts the following thought. The irrepressible Mr. Zimmerman is on tour this summer, as per usual. Maybe the President should swing by his Baltimore show at the end of July to see if His Bobness can inspire him, too.

-Jay Cost