Politics & Policy

Obama the Rhetorical Magician

Obama is a talented, but a wily and dishonest, salesman.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This column is available exclusively through King Features Syndicate. For permission to reprint or excerpt this copyrighted material, please contact: kfsreprint@hearstsc.com, or phone 800-708-7311, ext 246).

George H. W. Bush made a “read my lips” no-new-taxes pledge in his acceptance speech at the Republican Convention in August 1988, and broke it two years later. That seemed a fast turnaround, but President Barack Obama has outpaced him by making, and then signaling his intention to break, a no-new-taxes pledge all in the same address.

“If your family earns less than $250,000 a year,” Obama said in his speech to a joint session of Congress, “you will not see your taxes increased a single dime. I repeat: not one single dime.”

Unless, that is, your family pays a utility bill. Earlier from the same podium, Obama exhorted Congress to send him “legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution.” This cap-and-trade program would increase the cost of energy for everyone, regardless of income. It is a broad-based (if indirect) tax increase of the sort the casual listener would have thought Obama ruled out in categorical language.

Obama’s just-released budget outline proposes using revenues raised by cap-and-trade to fund his “Making Work Pay” tax credits that were part of the stimulus bill. Of those credits, Obama said, “The recovery plan provides a tax cut — that’s right, a tax cut — for 95 percent of working families.” This was a central Obama pledge during the campaign, although he never mentioned he’d fund it with a countervailing tax increase on working families and everyone else.

If you follow the money — out one pocket, in the other — Obama’s campaign promise is exposed as a fraud. Obama counts on no one noticing, in a vindication of the French writer Frederic Bastiat’s definition of politics as “the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.”

Obama is a talented, but a wily and dishonest, salesman. Nineteenth-century pol Martin Van Buren earned the sobriquet “the little magician” for his skillful manipulation of New York’s political machine. Obama is the rhetorical magician, depending — as all magicians do — on deft sleight of hand.

In his speech, Obama didn’t want his listeners to think he’s a big-government heir to Lyndon Johnson, so he talked of slashing waste. He said his team had begun going “line by line” through the budget, and “we have already identified $2 trillion in savings over the next decade.”

In common parlance, “savings” is taken to mean . . . well, savings. But half of this $2 trillion is accounted for by Obama’s planned tax increases on the rich — in other words, he has identified revenue, not savings. Much of the rest is arrived at by assuming the Iraq War would cost $170 billion a year for the duration, even though Obama has long planned a drawdown. Obama portrays himself as ruthlessly paring back government when he is simply raising taxes and leaving Iraq.

Obama boasted of a “recovery plan free of earmarks, and I want to pass a budget next year that ensures that each dollar we spend reflects only our most important national priorities.” Again, the casual listener might conclude Obama won’t tolerate earmarks, although a $410 billion spending bill is currently speeding through Congress with 8,500 earmarks Obama stands ready to swallow.

Even as he expands government, Obama forswears any interest in expanding government and says he’s scaling back: “Everyone will have to sacrifice some worthy priorities for which there are no dollars, and that includes me.” Really? The only programs he said he’d cut were ineffective education programs, useless weapons systems, and subsidies to agribusiness, and his budget increases discretionary spending by 12 percent next year. To paraphrase Bob Dole, where’s the austerity?

Obama the writer-president prides himself on a facility with words that has fueled his political rise. He clearly respects words, including their power to manipulate and mislead. “A good catchword,” Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “can obscure analysis for 50 years.” To pass a vast program changing the relationship of American government to its citizens, Obama only needs to obscure analysis for about a year.


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