Politics & Policy

The Adolescent President

The rhetorical excesses of Barack Obama.

Recently, Barack Obama — a Demosthenes determined to elevate our politics from coarseness to elegance, a Pericles sent to ameliorate our rhetorical impoverishment — spoke at the University of Michigan. He came to that very friendly venue — in 2012, he received 67 percent of the vote in Ann Arbor’s county — after visiting a local sandwich shop, where a muse must have whispered in the presidential ear. Representative Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) had recently released his budget, so Obama expressed his disapproval by calling it, for the benefit of his academic audience, a “meanwich” and a “stinkburger.”

Try to imagine Franklin Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower or John Kennedy or Ronald Reagan talking like that. It is unimaginable that those grown-ups would resort to japes that fourth-graders would not consider sufficiently clever for use on a playground.

When Theodore Roosevelt was president, one of his good friends — he had been best man at TR’s 1886 wedding — was the British diplomat Cecil Spring Rice. So, when visitors to Washington wanted to learn about TR, they asked Rice about him, and Springie, as TR called him, would say: “You must always remember that the president is about six.” Today’s president is older than that. But he talks like an arrested-development adolescent.

#ad#Anyone who has tried to engage a member of that age cohort in an argument probably recognizes the four basic teenage tropes, which also are the only arrows in Obama’s overrated rhetorical quiver. They were all employed by him last week when he went to the White House briefing room to exclaim, as he is wont to do, about the excellence of the Affordable Care Act.

First came the invocation of a straw man. Celebrating the ACA’s enrollment numbers, Obama, referring to Republicans, charged: “They said nobody would sign up.” Of course, no one said this. Obama often is what political philosopher Kenneth Minogue said of an adversary – “a pyromaniac in a field of straw men.”

Adolescents also try to truncate arguments by saying that nothing remains of any arguments against their arguments. Regarding the ACA, Obama said the debate is “settled” and “over.” Progressives also say the debate about catastrophic consequences of man-made climate change is “over,” so everyone should pipe down. And they say the debates about the efficacy of universal preschool, and the cost-benefit balance of a minimum-wage increase, are over. Declaring an argument over is so much more restful than engaging with evidence.

A third rhetorical move by argumentative adolescents is to declare that there is nothing to argue about because everything is going along swimmingly. Seven times Obama asserted that the ACA is “working.” That is, however, uninformative because it is ambiguous. The ethanol program is “working” in the sense that it is being implemented as its misguided architects intended. Nevertheless, the program is a substantial net subtraction from the nation’s well-being. The same can be said of sugar-import quotas, or agriculture subsidies generally, or many hundreds of other government programs that are, unfortunately, “working.”

Finally, the real discussion-stopper for the righteous — and there is no righteousness like an adolescent’s — is an assertion that has always been an Obama specialty. It is that there cannot be honorable and intelligent disagreement with him. So last week, less than two minutes after saying that the argument about the ACA “isn’t about me,” he said some important opposition to the ACA is about him, citing “states that have chosen not to expand Medicaid for no other reason than political spite.”

This, he said, must be spiteful because expanding Medicaid involves “zero cost to these states.” Well. The federal government does pay the full cost of expansion — for three years. After that, however, states will pay up to 10 percent of the expansion’s costs, which itself will be a large sum. And the 10 percent figure has not been graven on stone by the finger of God. It can be enlarged whenever Congress wants, as surely it will, to enable more federal spending by imposing more burdens on the states. Yet Obama, who aspired to tutor Washington about civility, is incapable of crediting opponents with other than base motives.

About one thing Obama was right, if contradictory. He said Americans want politicians to talk about other subjects — but that Democrats should campaign by celebrating the wondrousness of the ACA. This would be candid because it is what progressivism is — a top-down, continent-wide tissue of taxes, mandates, and other coercions. Is the debate about it over? Not quite.

— George F. Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. © 2014 The Washington Post

George Will — George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. His email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

Most Popular

Culture

Yes We Kanye

Kanye West is unpredictable and not terribly coherent and has generated his share of infamous and insufferably narcissistic behavior -- “Bush doesn’t care about black people” and “Imma let you finish” come to mind. Color me skeptical that it’s a consequential victory for the Right now that West is ... Read More

Poll Finds Nevada Voters Support School-Choice Programs

According to an April poll, a large number of Nevada voters support school-choice programs. The poll, conducted by Nevada Independent/Mellman, found that 70 percent of voters support a proposal for a special-needs Education Savings Account and 59 percent support expanding the funding for the current tax-credit ... Read More
Education

Is Journalism School Worth It?

Clarence Darrow dropped out of law school after just a year, figuring that he would learn what he needed to know about legal practice faster if he were actually doing it than sitting in classrooms. (Today, that wouldn't be possible, thanks to licensing requirements.) The same thing is true in other fields -- ... Read More
Culture

Wednesday Links

Today is ANZAC Day, the anniversary of the Battle of Gallipoli: Here's some history, a documentary, and a Lego re-enactment. How DNA Can Lead to Wrongful Convictions: Labs today can identify people with DNA from just a handful of cells, but a handful of cells can easily migrate. The 19th-century art of ... Read More
World

Microscopic Dots. Let’s Look at Them.

Stuart E. Eizenstat has written a big book on the Carter presidency. (Eizenstat was Carter’s chief domestic-policy adviser. He also had a substantial hand in foreign affairs.) I have reviewed the book for the forthcoming NR. Eizenstat tells the story of a meeting between President Carter and Andrei Gromyko, the ... Read More