The Two Faces of Barack Obama

A president contradicts himself all night long

"But I also know," President Barack Obama said last night, in his typically self-referential fashion, "that in a time of crisis, we cannot afford to govern out of anger, or yield to the politics of the moment. My job—our job—is to solve the problem. Our job is to govern with a sense of responsibility."

It was a pleasingly presidential sentiment for a subdued, not-quite-a-State-of-the-Union speech. Unfortunately for Obama—and us—it was also contradicted, and blatantly so, not four paragraphs prior, by a guy named Barack Obama. "This time," the president warned us the minute before, while giving that stern schoolmaster look of his, "CEOs won't be able to use taxpayer money to pad their paychecks or buy fancy drapes or disappear on a private jet. Those days are over!" Democrats leaped to their feet.

Obama aims to be the president of all Americans, a position that appears to be sincere. But I wonder whether in the process he might also want to consider appointing himself chief executive of his own head. All night long, with equally sonorous vigor, he served up confident assertions, only to state moments later, with equal conviction, their near opposite.

"We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before," Obama crowd-pleased near the beginning, in the slot normally reserved for lines like "the state of our union is strong." Not long after, though, Americans learned that our very "survival depends on finding new sources of energy." Also, "there will be no real recovery unless we clean up the credit crisis...our recovery will be choked off before it even begins," and if we don't do whatever Obama wants us to do about the banking system, "it could result in an economy that sputters along for not months or years, but perhaps a decade." Better! Stronger! Crippled for a decade!

After detailing some clean-energy advancements in China, Germany, Japan, and Korea, the president averred, "Well, I do not accept"—there's that self-referencing again—"a future where the jobs and industries of tomorrow take root beyond our borders." A few paragraphs later, however, zero-sum gave way to kumbaya: "The world depends on us to have a strong economy, just as our economy depends on the strength of the world's." Just don't you get strong by producing clean energy, Koreans!

It was like this all night. The president's stimulus package "will save or create 3.5 million jobs." One of those, anyway! His administration has "created a new website called recovery.gov so that every American can find out how and where their money is being spent," unless they try to use it to find out how and where their money is being spent. Importantly, Obama vowed to "act with the full force of the federal government to ensure that the major banks that Americans depend on have enough confidence and enough money to lend even in more difficult times," a pledge he took so seriously that later on he stressed, twice, that "it's not about helping banks—it's about helping people."

The contradictions came flying even in his read-my-lips moment: "If your family earns less than $250,000 a year," he said, "you will not see your taxes increased a single dime. I repeat: not one single dime." But as recently as the previous paragraph the president vowed to "restore a sense of fairness and balance to our tax code by finally ending the tax breaks for corporations that ship our jobs overseas." And a few paragraphs before that, he called for a "market-based cap on carbon pollution." So: You will not see your federal taxes increased a single dime...unless you own a company that emits carbon or hires some of those dastardly Koreans.

The two faces of Obama reveal more than just a man hard-wired to work both sides of a room. There is an essential contradiction at the heart of his populist economics. He wants to jump-start the "flow of credit"—it's "the lifeblood of our economy," after all—but somehow surgically remove the "speculators" from the process. "I will not spend a single penny," he promised, undeliverably, last night, "for the purpose of rewarding a single Wall Street executive, but I will do whatever it takes to help the small business that can't pay its workers or the family that has saved and still can't get a mortgage." His press secretary, Robert Gibbs, declared last week that, "I think we left [behind] a few months ago the adage that if it was good for a derivatives trader, that it's good for Main Street. I think the verdict is in on that."

Here is one of the many problems with that line of thinking: Wall Street isn't just some abstract pit of snakes that can be drowned in poison oil or otherwise given a wide berth—it's the heart (if tattered) of the country's financial industry. Which, among other things, does more to unleash the lifebloody "flow of credit" than any other power center in America. Not only does Obama get it wrong when he thinks you can best "help the small business" without involving the best single source of small-business funding, he also wildly misses the political and financial ethos of the abstraction he can't stop campaigning against. "I understand that on any given day, Wall Street may be more comforted by an approach that gives banks bailouts with no strings attached, and that holds nobody accountable for their reckless decisions," he said with a smirk. "But such an approach won't solve the problem." Nor will erecting a giant straw man in Lower Manhattan.

But there's more: Not only is Wall Street going to be key to any recovery, the reviled "derivatives trader" is right at the clenched heart of the financial blockage. As Washington Post economics columnist Robert J. Samuelson pointed out earlier this month, "Contrary to popular wisdom, banks—institutions that take deposits—aren't the main problem. In December, total U.S. bank credit stood at $9.95 trillion, up 8 percent from a year earlier, reports the Federal Reserve. Business, consumer and real estate loans all increased....The real collapse has occurred in securities markets."

Securitized lending instruments, and the various insurance and pricing bets placed on them, sloshed hundreds of billions of dollars into the economy, but have now locked up. The point is not that the derivatives trader needs a bailout—he most certainly does not—it's that inaccurately demonizing him is not the shortest route to economic wisdom.

There were some promising notes in Obama's speech last night, particularly his vow to "end direct payments to large agribusinesses that don't need them," and discontinue the dishonest and irresponsible way that Congress has funded wars for the past seven years. But the biggest promise was the one that his contradictions—or maybe just his ideology—did not let him fulfill. "It is only by understanding how we arrived at this moment," he said near the beginning, "that we'll be able to lift ourselves out of this predicament." Too true. Moments later, however, despite piles of evidence to the contrary, he said: "Regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit at the expense of a healthy market."

If understanding root causes is the key to good economic policy, we may have longer to go than even the pessimistic half of Obama thinks.

Matt Welch is the Editor in Chief of Reason magazine.

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  • ||

    ... damned keyboard. Made me post before I was ready. It be hating on Obama too.

  • LarryA||

    But it works so well in Chicago.

  • brec||

    The Pres said,

    In this budget, we will ... end direct payments to large agribusinesses

    and then he said, one presumes without pause,

    that don't need them.

    He used the restrictive "that," which implies that those large agribusinesses that do need direct payments will continue to receive them.

    Expenses being what they are, it seems logical that large agribusinesses which donate to political campaigns would naturally have a larger need for direct payments. If not, how would a fair and objective measurement of "need"-remember, we are discussing large agribusinesses-be made? Asking the operators of the businesses wouldn't seem a fruitful approach.

    Or could Obama or his writers have made a minor usage error, and intended the meaning that would have been conveyed by the non-restrictive "which" instead of "that"? That error does render the clause uncomfortably awkward, but if that is overlooked the implication is that agribusiness in general does not need the direct payments which will all be ending. Compositionally and semantically I think the usage error is unlikely.

    Whatever one thinks of the political or fiscal implications of the clause and whatever its exact intended meaning, it is a fine example of the carefulness that characterizes current political rhetoric.

  • Michael Price||

    "In this budget, we will ... end DIRECT payments to large agribusinesses"
    Yeah so indirect payments will continue. Anyone want to guess what percentage of payments they get are "indirect"?

  • ||

    "We need to end DIRECT payments to large agribusinesses that don't need them. That is why we will INCREASE INDIRECT payments to large agribusinesses that don't need them"

  • ||

    Typical. Can't see the forest for the trees, eh guys? Matt Welch stretched the speech to transparent thinness with his desperate attempts to provide "opposites" so his predefined vision of what he would write would make some weird sense to him. Matt, it didn't go down like you imagined it did. Just because there is a "that" after a "this" does not mean you can isolate the two and then cry foul.

  • Xeones||

    Shut the fuck up, Barack Obama.

  • Astroglide||

    When he said Americans will start seeing more money in their pay checks beginning April 1st I immediately though, hey! That's April FOOL'S day. How apropos! Oh and that the president must be a total idiot for not catching that.

  • Matt Welch Makes Me Sleepy||

    "Matt Welch stretched the speech to transparent thinness with his desperate attempts to provide "opposites" so his predefined vision of what he would write would make some weird sense to him. Matt, it didn't go down like you imagined it did. Just because there is a "that" after a "this" does not mean you can isolate the two and then cry foul."

    You are starting to get sleepy... Your eylids are getting very heavy... You feel so relaxed... so peaceful... let go of all your cares... sleepy... sleepy... sleepy...

  • ¢||

    Shut the fuck up, Barack Obama.

    This, especially.

    One of the few things I liked about Bush is that if I didn't watch the news, his stupid face was almost never in my house. It was hard to avoid idiots' ritualistically cursing his name, but it wasn't him.

    The new guy is rude.

  • ||

    "CEOs won't be able to use taxpayer money to pad their paychecks or buy fancy drapes or disappear on a private jet."

    But for the idiots in congress and the federal government? Those days are eternal.

  • JB||

    Obama isn't an empty suit, he is a complete and utter moron.

    Stock up on guns and ammo, this fool will destroy the country.

  • ||

    this fool will destroy the country.

    This is just silly. Only a string of impressively foolish leaders, uninterrupted over a period of 2 decades could possibly...

    wait. 8+8+4=20...

    oh, shit.

  • ||

    So when are you gonna get to pointing out contradictions?

  • Gilbert Martin||

    "The contradictions came flying even in his read-my-lips moment: "If your family earns less than $250,000 a year," he said, "you will not see your taxes increased a single dime. I repeat: not one single dime." But as recently as the previous paragraph the president vowed to "restore a sense of fairness and balance to our tax code by finally ending the tax breaks for corporations that ship our jobs overseas." And a few paragraphs before that, he called for a "market-based cap on carbon pollution." So: You will not see your federal taxes increased a single dime...unless you own a company that emits carbon or hires some of those dastardly Koreans."

    Yeah or unless you are a smoker, since he's already raised tobacco taxes for "the children's" health.


    Furthermore the carbon tax or cap or whatever, is indeed an effective and huge tax on everybody using energy in any way (which is everbody).

    Ultimately, prosperity is dependent on increases in productivity. Substituting higher cost "green" energy sources for lower cost carbon based one's is going in exactly the opposite direction to achieving that.

  • Russ 2000||

    Obama took 45 minutes to announce "Present".

  • ||

    Ultimately, prosperity is dependent on increases in productivity. Substituting higher cost "green" energy sources for lower cost carbon based one's is going in exactly the opposite direction to achieving that.

    The market has failed to provide a price for carbon-based energy sources that takes into account the damage it does to the environment. This is why I believe government has the responsibility to intervene in some areas of the market. Productivity won't mean a damn thing if none of us is around.

  • Racist Commie Neocon||

    "The market has failed to provide a price for carbon-based energy sources that takes into account the damage it does to the environment. This is why I believe government has the responsibility to intervene in some areas of the market. Productivity won't mean a damn thing if none of us is around."

    Here's what you don't get tony, if we're not around it means we're dead like the dinosaurs. And THAT means that over time, our bodies will turn into oil, just as the dinosaurs did.

    And while were becoming sweet-light crude, the plants will clear out the excess CO2 from the atmosphere. Then the next up and coming life form will take the top slot.

    Granted, the cycle is mighty long but it makes the claim that oil isn't renewable totally bogus.

  • ||

    One of the few things I liked about Bush is that if I didn't watch the news, his stupid face was almost never in my house.



    I'm contracting this week for a film studio. They have a six foot high poster of Obama with the word "Change" on the window of the cafeteria. Creepy.

  • Invisible Finger||

    Productivity won't mean a damn thing if none of us is around.

    I'll be so happy that the air I breathe while waiting in the bread line is marginally cleaner.

  • ||

    I'll be so happy that the air I breathe while waiting in the bread line is marginally cleaner.

    Well, it's better than what 4 more years of Republican rule would have got you. A longer bread line and still no future for human civilization.

  • ||

    Well, it's better than what 4 more years of Republican rule would have got you. A longer bread line and still no future for human civilization.

    A more stirring defense of the Democratic party, I have not witnessed.

  • Paul||

    I've noticed lately that we've lost some of our reliable liberal commenters. When Obama was elected, I wondered if such a thing might happen. Because, you know, it's easier to defend the image of Obama than the reality of Obama. And being on Defense all the time sucks.

    I can only imagine what it must have been like for Bush supporters.

  • Gene Berkman||

    The Minnesota Independence Party has a comeback on the criticism of corporate jets @ http://www.independenceminnesota.org/blog/posts/204-if-we-criticize-corporate-execs-who-fly-these-when-requesting-bailout-money-for-broke-companies

  • Gilbert Martin||

    Wasn't Nancy Pelosi whining and moaning about how she deserved a bigger plane when she officially became Squealer of the House?


    I'd like to see a report on all the flights made by members of Congress and/or their staffs and what type of planes they're all flying in on the taxpayers dime.

  • ||

    I've never seen an administration that exudes "We're wingin' it here!" more than this one.

  • ||

    Man, I love it when Matt Welch gets his rant on.

  • ||

    You say Obama appears to be sincere in his desire to be President of all Americans. Substitute Fuehrer for President and I'd buy it.

  • jtuf||

    Obama is a bag of hot rhetoric. My one hope is that the general population polls in favor of more freedom and that he lets polls shape his policy as much as Clinton did.

  • ABC||

    The clown might succeed in making folks wish Bush was still president.

  • ||

    1 minute video montage of Obama talking about how much he likes ethanol.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CIRRZ6FhYSY

    This next (8 min) PBS video is great. "Ethanol is not worth it". He said this in Iowa. Never mind, that was John McCain. But our previous and current morons love it:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MQYzdUUIJo4

  • Obama Zombie #TH1338||

    Braaaains... hoooope... chaaaange... braaaains...

  • ||

    it's easier to defend the image of Obama than the reality of Obama. And being on Defense all the time sucks.

    On the contrary, the president has surpassed my wildest expectations as a liberal. And no, not just because he's spending money like a, well, like a Republican.

    What's to defend against? The hypocritical, paranoid, desperate ranting of the few remaining right-wing naysayers?

    I had assumed Obama would be more like Bill Clinton, capitulating to the right at every opportunity. But he's something else entirely, a true blue liberal who unabashedly wants to solve health care, climate change, fix the economy in real ways and not patchwork pandering-to-the-Republican ways, and, oh yes, cure cancer.

    Ambition and hope are two sides of the same coin. After 8 years of an absolutely useless government, when we had all become accustomed to being lied to and spun and cynically manipulated, the breath of fresh air that is Obama is not something I feel any need to defend.

  • ||

    What's to defend against? The hypocritical, paranoid, desperate ranting of the few remaining right-wing naysayers?

    But he's something else entirely, a true blue liberal who unabashedly wants to solve health care, climate change, fix the economy in real ways and not patchwork pandering-to-the-Republican ways, and, oh yes, cure cancer.


    I think you've just been caught! Good work though.

  • ||

    Compared to Obama, Republicans are so wonderfully consistent - the solution to all problems (Recession, Katrina, Terrorism, Wars, Healthcare, Prescription drugs, Energy etc) - tax cuts for the rich individuals or corporations and no-bid contracts for Bechtel and Halliburton.

    In that case, we always know what they will do - make Exxon and the Waltons richer

  • ||

    No doubt everyone is enjoying the hyperbole but it sounds mostly like sour grapes or frustration....particularly that comment about working both sides of the room...that's what politicians do darling. The problem for conservatives is this guy is probably the best presidential operator since FDR. Clinton, Kennedy and Reagan were pretty good but this guy is definitely in Delano territory. The country loves him; he's incredibly articulate; likeable; very intelligent; totally unflappable; not frightened to fess up to mistakes; has an incredible facility to make people look like jackasses when they say something innapropriate, his handling of McCain over the grumpy old man helicopter question was a minor masterpiece; and has comfortable majorities in house and senate to back him up. Get used to it. I don't know what the Republican solution is but making Limbaugh and a bunch of hotheads the leaders of our party aint it.

  • ||

    To Matt Welch: WHAT CONTRADICTIONS?


    Look, I'm not a fan of Obama's, but if he lays out plans that YOU do not think will achieve his stated goals, then you might call him "misguided" or "impractical", at worst. But such differences over tactics strategy and means, or differences in where one affixes blame and who one thinks will best clean up the mess, THESE sorts of differences are NOT indicative of some inherent contradiction in the president's views.

    When someone suggests we might revitalize the enterprise of loan-making, WITHOUT writing blank-checks to Wall Street or Big-Bank execs., you assume they must be confused or incoherent because you think that those execs are the only ones who could possibly manage a recovery and you assume they can't do so under the thumb of regulation and oversight. Well, yes, Obama disagrees with THAT; but then he never assumed that to begin with, so he's not contradicting himself, he's contradicting your tired assumptions.

    It just means he sees the world, and how it works, differently than YOU MR. WELCH.

    And frankly, from what I can see from your writings, I'm really GLAD he disagrees with you about how the world works.

    Commentary like yours is making me more and more willing to take Pres. Obama's plans seriously, as an alternative to the failed ideas of pundits like yourself.

    - Lauren D (in SC)

  • ||

    "The American people will never knowingly adopt socialism. But, under the name of 'liberalism,' they will adopt every fragment of the socialist program, until one day America will be a socialist nation, without knowing how it happened."
    - Norman Thomas, U.S. Socialist Party presidential candidate 1940, 1944 and 1948

  • ||

    Matt Welch, I don't buy your analysis for one second. Thank God Barack Obama is leading the country and not you. In fact, thank God we don't have a complaining cry baby for our president. President Obama is taking risk to fix this mountain of trouble (it is going to take that, unfortunately, since no safe/proven formula for this mess). In one month this president has worked harder than George W did in 8 years...8 very wasted years that America obviously could not afford.

  • ||

    any change in the tax code has an impact. an increase at any level will result in less money in the economy. Increase tax or close loop holes on car companies.. cars cost more. Add a carbon tax energy will cost more. Tax small business 250K guys add to the cost of services. likewise a decrease has the opposite affect. this is just insanity. sad part is our 401k's what is left is next thing the goverment will take control of.

  • ||

    Class warfare? Who destroyed the country?

    I can hardly believe that there aren't some suit-straight, perfect-part, Mercedes-driving fuckers hanging from light poles right now. I for one, am sick of the abuse by monied interests. If you want class warfare I am prepared to bring it. Are you?

  • ||

    hey all you clueless liberals -

    neither you, i, or anyone else has a clue where the tax revenue maximization point is, plotted rate v. productivity. income tax reductions favor the wealthy because the wealthy PAY ALL THE F"IN TAXES IN THIS COUNTRY, despite the blather you're fed. do the research. 80% of income tax is paid by 20% of workers. If you want to take from the rich and give to the poor, robin hood, then call it what it is: in the meantime, try to understand that money left in my pocket, or yours, if money left to spend on goods and services, locally. so the restaurant next door won't close, etc. the endgame, from people that want to take all your money and send it to DC, or your state, is that business withers locally. this has already been proved, here, abroad. if you think that taxing the rich will solve our problems, or taxing corporations, you're just TOO F'IN STUPID. i'm not wasting anymore of my time....

    sub, nyc

  • ||

    I think that this speech was very good and it honestly gives me some hope for the future. We need this change desperately after Bush messed us up so bad. There is no need to pick apart Obama's speech so much.

  • ||

    "The contradictions came flying even in his read-my-lips moment: "If your family earns less than $250,000 a year," he said, "you will not see your taxes increased a single dime. I repeat: not one single dime." But as recently as the previous paragraph the president vowed to "restore a sense of fairness and balance to our tax code by finally ending the tax breaks for corporations that ship our jobs overseas." And a few paragraphs before that, he called for a "market-based cap on carbon pollution." So: You will not see your federal taxes increased a single dime...unless you own a company that emits carbon or hires some of those dastardly Koreans."

    WTF? Reason? This?

  • amazed||

    Obviously the writer and most of the people who commented on this "article" are on the same page. The Moron page. We live in contradictory times, people. There is promise and there is deep rot. Both can exist at once.

  • ||

    What is the problem, intellectual or otherwise, with stating a positive, desired outcome and then the point being started from to achieve that goal?

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    Give a liberal a fish, and he eats for a day.

    Teach a liberal to fish, and he'll still be asking for free fish.

  • Just Say NO to Statism||

    "After 8 years of an absolutely useless government"

    ...we have a month of absolutely useless government, with three years and 11 months to go.



    IF we're lucky, that's as bad as it will get.

  • ||

    You missed the biggest contradiction of all. He called this a new "era of responsibility" and presented the most irresponsible budget in the history of the country.

    He intends to spend $2 for every $1 of income, and borrow the rest. Then he wants to make "the rich" pay, but no one else.

    He doesn't say that if he taxed the "rich" at 100%, he still couldn't cover the deficit.

    I hope that people stop listening to his soothing words of nonsense and start watching what he does. It is very scary.

  • ||

    I'd like to take a moment to personally thank Tony and Lauren for reminding us, once again, of the real dangers of giving the vote to people with IQs of 115.

    You should both be so proud of yourselves.

  • ||

    You Obama critics want to explain the billions sent to Iraq and the lost of American life fighting there? What did that event prove? Bush made a bad decision and it's still costing us plenty. Then there's the economy; government for years protecting and prospering the rich while millions have no healthcare. I don't care much for rich folks and glad there's someone now that wants to help middle-income people and poor folks. Greed has got us in this mess.

  • Jeff Perren||

    One has to wonder why the Progressives are so bent on complaining about every conservative or libertarian commentary that disagrees with Obama's ideas and plans.

    Since Obama and the Democratic Congress won so handily, there should be simple joy and a general ignoring of an opposition they say has been roundly defeated more or less forever.

    Yet, they persist.

    Could there be some unstated, unextinguishable fear among them that the American people, if they read commentators who believe in a positive correlation between freedom and prosperity, will become persuaded and decide once again to favor individual liberty?

    One has to wonder...

  • Man A||

    What the fuck is this stupid fucking article?

  • ||

    Two words I now hate...hope and change....I wish I were deaf and blind so I didn't have to hear idiots try to defend the indefensible or see idiotic homages to some guy who made it to the highest office in the land b/c he can read pretty words off of a tele prompter...

  • Jim||

    For a discussion on the Reason Magazine website, there seems to be very little reasoned argument.

  • ||

    Drink!

  • ||

    We get the government we deserve.

  • Scarpe Nike||

    is good

  • caibutou||

    thank

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