Monday, August 24, 2009

Decoding Obamaspeak

The time has come, the president says, for a serious debate.

So I guess all of the kidding around about health care is over.

Mr. Obama said Saturday that health care was “an issue of vital concern to every American.” He’s glad so many are engaged and said the debate should be honest. He sought to spend his weekly radio address “debunking some of the more outrageous myths” about health care.

Which interested me. I myself have been working on a similar project. Not debunking health-care “myths” but decoding Mr. Obama‘s health-care rhetoric.

The president is lauded as being remarkably articulate. He isn’t as folksy as his predecessor. He speaks actively, not in the passive-apologetic of the Clinton era. Mr. Obama tends to use a thrifty, declarative present tense.

“History is clear,” Mr. Obama might intone. Listeners, who assume the president knows more history than they do -- and presume he always tells the truth about it -- tend to give him a free pass on whatever he says next. But what comes next is not an inarguable historical conclusion but a highly debatable interpretation of it.

Sometimes Mr. Obama seeks to build a rhetorical consensus before his pronouncement. “I think we can all agree,” he’ll say, “that the time to act is now.” This puts two human tendencies into play: The desire to be in agreement and the necessity of responding to problems that need to be solved. Listeners nod -- "Yes, we must agree! Yes, we must act! -- before they think. Many, if asked about the issue, would never describe it as requiring imminent action.

Or Mr. Obama might begin a sentence with: "Those who seek to divide us say ..." Instead of putting everyone in the same category, as he does with the first example, he now asks listeners to pick one. He's asking for action. He doesn’t just want you to nod, he wants you to join him. Do you want to side with the dividers (bad), or the uniter (good)? That’s easy: Unity is something we’re taught to value; division is not. Don't we all want to be on the side of unity and goodness?

Yes, we do!

Sound familiar?

Each of those rhetorical devices prove this president a master of presenting his opinions as inarguable fact. And yet despite the presentation, what Mr. Obama says after these little verbal “tells” is usually far from factual.

I don’t know who falls for this, but the Jedi mind trick doesn’t work on me. And the more I hear this oratorical gimcrackery, the more I train my ears to parse whatever comes next.

Here are a few other telling phrases the president used at his town-hall meeting in Grand Junction, Colo.

"This is a legitimate debate to have."
Classic Obama-speak, a present-tense declaration. This may work when Mr. Obama is on offense, but they’re far more telling when he’s playing D. When a defensive Mr. Obama says these things, he typically means the opposite. He doesn’t think this debate is legitimate, he thinks it’s disruptive. What’s more, he knows and anyone who watched them know they were anything but a legitimate debate. They were scripted events full of sympathetic audiences asking softball questions. There was no clash over any meaningful ideas.

When you’re forced to say something as inherently healthy as public debate is “legitimate,” you’re in trouble. Tiffany doesn’t have to advertise that it sells genuine diamonds.

"I just want to be clear what this debate is about."
This is another example of the president meaning the exact opposite of the words that just came out of his mouth. The last thing Mr. Obama wants to do is be clear as to what the debate is about. He might as well say, “Let me make sure I have sufficiently clouded the issue so that you think this is about health care and not about a takeover of 20% of the national economy.”

"There's been a lot of misinformation."
Misinformation is when the other side says something you don't want to hear, when the opposition brings up -- to borrow a phrase -- an inconvenient truth. Such as the fact that an overwhelming majority of Americans are completely satisfied with their health care. (And a growing percentage are growing ever more disillusioned with Obama’s policies.)

"I just want to be completely clear about this; I keep on saying this but somehow folks aren't listening."

So it turns out it’s pretty easy to wave to adoring crowds during a campaign. It’s a lot harder to persuade the opposition once you’re in office. The problem here is that this new president, when put on the defensive, shows he is completely out of touch with the mainstream. The folks can hear you just fine. It’s not that folks aren’t listening, it’s that they disagree. That is, after all, their right.

After all that -- and much, much more -- Mr. Obama seemed slipped up. No one reported it, of course, but he did utter one completely true sentence, one that could be taken at face value. It was this president’s favorite opportunity, the teachable moment. "If you just believe the government shouldn't be involved in health care, period, then you're right that you can't support the kind of reform that we're proposing."

Andy Obermueller lives in Austin.

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