Politics & Policy

Mr. President, Words Matter

Obama, the rhetorician, forgot that people might actually take seriously what he said.

What is Barack Obama’s real problem? Too many people here and abroad took him at his word, and he now seems quite angry at that.

For two years Obama serially damned the entrepreneurial classes. They should “spread the wealth,” be “patriotic,” and pay “their fair share.” They should be paying more income, payroll, and inheritance taxes. They could not be trusted with health care, student loans, high finance, or auto manufacturing. Their lifestyles of private jets and Super Bowl junkets came at the expense of the downtrodden. The would-be rich who made just over $200,000 were indiscriminately lumped together with the elite rich on Wall Street — who ironically contributed inordinately to Barack Obama’s non–publicly financed campaign coffers.

Apparently, the small-business classes took Obama’s writs seriously, and for the foreseeable future they have shut down — they have quit hiring and buying, and are riding out the “recovery.” In response, a frantic Obama suddenly began talking about balanced budgets, tax cuts, and tax credits, and praising the private sector. Too late: Too many entrepreneurs took him at his original word.

Then there was the constant partisanship, the “never let a crisis go to waste” Chicago hardball. Never has a president talked so much about reaching across the aisle and done so little of it. During the campaign, the Senate’s most partisan member claimed he was its least. That same deception characterized most of his first year in the White House. He promised C-SPAN coverage of bipartisan give-and-take, while actually holding the health-care debate behind Democratic congressional doors to offer bribes and insider deals in exchange for votes. “Let’s end the bickering” was usually the preface to “Bush did it, not me.” Absolute Democratic control of Washington — both Congress and the White House — meant that Republicans had “played Washington politics” to stop grass-roots governance.

Then Scott Brown won the Senate seat long occupied by the late liberal lion Ted Kennedy, and Obama’s polls dived below 50 percent. Soon even New York Times columnists began listing all sorts of reservations about Obama that they had long entertained but mysteriously only now voiced. In response, a frantic Obama is suddenly talking about reaching out, meeting with Republicans, and drafting bipartisan legislation. Too late: Too many Republicans took him at his original word.

In his dealings abroad, remember “hope and change,” the “reset button,” and all the grandiose promises of a year ago? Barack Obama assured our critics that he would have the dreadful Bush Guantanamo Bay detention center closed by now. But then the reality that most of the detainees were cold-blooded killers who would revert to terrorism upon release — and many were Yemenis eager to join up with al-Qaeda at home — made those repeated boasts inoperative. I will be surprised if Obama ever closes Guantanamo.

The architect of 9/11 and self-confessed beheader, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was supposed to be accorded a big public civilian trial a couple of thousand yards away from the scene of his mass-murdering. There, his attorneys could plead that the Bush-Cheney nexus had waterboarded him, as he voiced to the world all his grievances against a purported neo-imperialist, colonialist, and racist Bush America — hoping that at least one sympathetic juror might fall for his “America made me do it” defense.

That too seems now to be history. Sometime around Christmas, Obama discovered that al-Qaeda both still wishes to kill us and does not appreciate that we give Miranda rights to our would-be killers. I would be surprised if KSM is ever tried in a civilian court in the United States.

Iran was to be wowed and charmed by Barack Hussein Obama, who would distance himself from America’s past sins, dating all the way back to the coup against Mossadegh in 1953. Ahmadinejad would faint in ecstasy like the 2008 campaign crowds, as he gave up his nuclear-weapon plans and fell in love with the new postnational America. And now? Iran does the same old, same old — “Israel must be destroyed,” and no one dare tell us to stop our nuclear program. The latest theocratic communiqué promised the “end of American civilization” — as we rush anti-missile batteries to the Gulf. I would not be surprised to see Iran set off a bomb this year or next.

This scenario has been replayed all over the globe. Thousands of Japanese hit the streets, echoing Obama’s signature “Change!” — but as in “Change U.S.-Japanese Relations.” And why not, if we are to take on another $9 trillion in debt during this administration, much of it from Japan and China? And how dare we base our troops on Japanese soil — especially in a postnational age, when alliances, and a world divided into good guys and bad guys, are, well, so passé?

Russia still bullies its neighbors and tries to embarrass the United States. China still threatens to take over Taiwan. North Korea still tries to shake us down for cash by stirring up trouble with Seoul. Chávez is as buffoonish as ever, and has only been empowered by our recent “outreach.”

In short, throughout the campaign and during the first months of his presidency, Obama globally made the argument that George Bush’s America had done wrong and was part of the world’s problem rather than its solution. But the world garbled Obama’s message, and instead came away with the distinct impression that America itself — whether Bush’s or Obama’s — was the problem. One cannot spend two years blaming America under Bush, and then suddenly claim, “That was then, this is now,” and expect the world to rally to the godhead of Barack Obama and his new, improved America.

How odd that Obama, the rhetorician, forgot that words matter — and that the truth is not a trifle, a mere construct predicated on the particular situation at the moment it is voiced.

Too many people, here and abroad, took Barack Obama at his word. And right now  — drifting amid high unemployment, mounting domestic opposition, and energized enemies abroad — he sorely wishes that they had not.

Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.

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