The Clarity of False Choices

How Obama’s rhetorical tricks mislead the public

“There are those who claim we have to choose between paying down our deficits…and investing in job creation and economic growth,” President Obama said last week. “This is a false choice.” During the same speech, he asked his audience to “let me just be clear” that his administration, having racked up the biggest budget deficits ever, is embracing fiscal responsibility, as reflected in his vow that “health insurance reform” will not increase the deficit “by one dime.”

For connoisseurs of Obama-speak, the address featured a trifecta, combining three of his favorite rhetorical tropes. There was the vague reference to “those who” question his agenda, the “false choice” they use to deceive the public, and the determination to “be clear” and forthright, in contrast with those dishonest naysayers. These devices are useful as signals that the president is about to mislead us.

Obama says his opponents wrongly insist that we choose between “paying down our deficits” and “investing in job creation and economic growth.” But that is not the way his real critics, as opposed to the imaginary, nameless ones who appear in his speeches, would frame the issue.

The real critics question the premise that the spending Obama supports, which he says ultimately will boost tax revenues and curtail outlays for public assistance programs, should be considered an investment at all—and, if so, whether it is a better use of this money than the market would have found. Copying his predecessor by throwing more money at education, for example, is a dubious strategy for spurring economic growth, since there is no clear relationship between spending and student achievement.

Likewise, Obama’s promise that health insurance subsidies will not expand the deficit may be “clear,” but it’s not realistic, since it’s based on accounting tricks and wishful thinking. Congressional Democrats avoided counting a $240 billion Medicare “fix” by putting it in a separate bill and assumed reimbursement cuts that probably will never materialize.

Here are some other things Obama has asked us to let him be clear about: “Earmarks have given legislators the opportunity to direct federal money to worthy projects”; the U.S. government “has no interest in running GM”; Medicare cuts will be made “in a way that protects our senior citizens” from changes in benefits or costs; and a “public option” for health care, which would invite businesses to offload their medical costs onto taxpayers and could drive private insurers from the market, “would not impact those of you who already have insurance.” From now on, when you hear Obama speak, try replacing “let me be clear” with “let me lie to you,” and see if it makes more sense.

Speaking of making sense, some of the “false choices” Obama has identified in the last year are more puzzling than misleading. “I reject the false choice between securing this nation and wasting billions of taxpayer dollars,” he declared in March. So according to Obama, we can secure the nation and waste billions of taxpayer dollars. Actually, that sounds about right.

Obama’s depiction of his critics is a bit further removed from reality. In the health care debate, he says, “there are those who simply don't believe Washington can bring about this change”; “there are those who will say that we do not go far enough”; “there are those who would have us try what has already failed, who would defend the status quo”; “there are those who will oppose reform no matter what”; and “there are those who want to seek political advantage.”

What about those who do not like the status quo but have a different vision of reform, not because they want to go farther than Obama does but because they want to go in a different direction, toward more choice, more competition, and less government involvement? In Obama’s world, they do not exist; instead we have his bold yet achievable plan, pitted against socialist utopianism and blind partisan intransigence. Let me be clear: This is a false choice.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Copyright 2009 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  • Untermensch||

    Presidential addresses are an opportunity to create straw men? You don't say…

    I know this is an article about Obama's false choices, but it seems that this rhetorical trope has been stock and trade of presidents since the founding of the Republic. It would an interesting exercise to identify the rhetorical equivalents used by each president since the start and see what these “choices” were and how they changed over time.

  • Masturbatin' Pete||

    True, triangulating between extremist strawmen is common in politics. I think what sets Obama apart is that he signals that he's doing it, and does it the same way every time, with the same verbal tropes: "there are those who say..." and "false choice."

    What other things might you expect in an Obama speech?

    -The index finger/thumb pinch
    -Connection of whatever the issue is to Obama's life story
    -Grandiloquence, with a fig leaf of false modesty
    -"let me be clear" or "let's be clear."
    -"for too long..."
    -"the time for _____ is over."
    -Droppin' the ends o' words 'n' runnin' words together to appear folksy (depending on the audience).
    -Overpronunciation ("Paki-stahn," although someone seems to have told him to dial it back it a bit, because during the campaign it was "pocky-stahn")

    I'm sure there are more.

  • MWG||

    Don't forget "unprecedented".

  • pmains||

    That's actually correct, though. Well, almost. To be completely correct, you need to make sure that your 'p' is unaspirated, so that it sounds like a 'b' to most English speakers.

  • Slut Bunwalla||

    Also the guttural "uhhh" sound he makes in the back of his throat when he needs to formulate his next sentence/lie.

  • Masturbatin' Pete||

    "...that we inherited."
    "...years of neglect."

  • ||

    You forgot "Look"...

  • Richard M. Nixon||

    Let me say this about that.

  • Johnny Longtorso||

    I thought his lips moving was the signal he was about to deceive us.

  • ||

    psssh, look for the eyebrow raise, he can deceive in his very facial gestures, he's that good.

  • TP||

    That's an old, old joke.

    "How can you tell a politician is lying? His lips are moving."

  • BakedPenguin||

    It's a very "Rovian" tactic: he talks about false choices, and then he presents one.

  • BakedPenguin||

    ...which was essentially Sullum's point. I need more coffee.

  • jk||

    "There is no more time for debate" or "everyone agrees that" - Obamaspeak for "no matter what you thing or what the facts are, you just shut up because I'm not listening".

  • John Tagliaferro||

    no matter what you thing Lucy, . . .

  • Max D.||

    Amazingly enough, that's exactly how Dianne Feinstein responds to my letters: "I understand that you are concerned about X. I believe, however..."

  • ||

    This just in: the editors of Time magazine are officially a pack of blithering left-wing morons. They're actually crediting Bernanke with "avoiding" the financial crisis. Wonder if they'll be singing the same tune when they've raised the cover price of the magazine to five hundred bucks, and they're closing their doors.

    -jcr

  • TP||

    Well, he did avoid the financial crisis...to be postponed to a later date.

    I'm actually beginning to hear investment people say that it probably would have been better to just nationalize all of those zombie banks and put them out of their misery.

    But, it looks like instead, we're headed toward negative interest rates. Forget about gold, buy something you can actually eat.

  • Sean W. Malone||

    Why would you "nationalize" zombie banks to "put them out of their misery"???

    The market would have put them out of their misery ages ago all by itself, and at no expense to the taxpayer.

  • Mango Punch||

    Bernanke joins the ranks of such renown Time's MOTY as:
    Adolph Hitler
    Stalin
    FDR
    Truman
    Kennedy
    Carter
    Middle America
    American Women
    People Under 25
    and 2006's winner: "You"

  • jpocali||

    Don't forget Pacman!

  • JoshInHB||

    "They're actually crediting Bernanke with "avoiding" the financial crisis."

    Might as well credited GWB for avoiding war in Iraq

  • ||

    Hoax and chains!

  • John Tagliaferro||

    Racist!

  • Draco||

    There are those who think being a Chicago community organizer and an academic in the legal field don't qualify one to negotiate the difficult waters of international diplomacy, or to be commander in chief of the US Armed Forces.

  • ||

    So vote Republican.

  • ||

    BTW, do ExtenZe really work? Because it's been more than three weeks and nothing's happening.

  • Bob's your uncle||

    Maybe it's because 150% of zero is still zero?

  • ||

    I also think it's ironic that Barry came out and encouraged kids to take math and science, but math and science apparently aren't important enough for Barry to major in...

  • ||

    Just like belittling Americans abroad for not speaking the local lingo, despite not being able to speak on himself.

  • ||

    I'm so glad you brought that up...as this very thing came to mind awhile back as I was thinking of all the hypocritical things he has said/done. Heck one thing he always emphasized when asked during the campaign why he thought he was qualified to be president was that he had lived abroad as a child...so he had a perfect opportunity to learn a second language...
    I am so tired of his condescending attitide toward his merely mortal "subjects" (does his neck ever get sore from having his chin up in the air so high?). Briefly (or else this could go on forever) a few other examples of hypocrisy: his chastising Eric Cantor publicly during the health care summit for using a printed version of the bill itself as a political prop, yet during a televised health care meeting last year the white house supplied white lab/doctor coats to the docs who attended; and had a little kid at his shoulder (who's story we had all learned) when he signed the hc bill..those are not political props!!!:) Oh gosh I just get so mad sorry this is totally off subject and way too long
    .

  • Xeones||

    But Draco, those people are racists. Janeane Garofalo says so.

  • Rich||

    These devices are useful as signals that the president is about to mislead us.

    Let me be clear -- "these devices" are the teleprompters.

  • Slut Bunwalla||

    +10

  • Rich||

    “I reject the false choice between securing this nation and wasting billions of taxpayer dollars”

    Yeah, I got a laugh from that at the time. Jacob is the only person I've heard point this one out.

  • John Tagliaferro||

    But it was a false choice! He is doing both. Doing a lot better at the wasting part than anybody before him, I might add.

  • ||

    Yeah Buddy, Obama is a real trickster isnt he!

    RT
    www.total-privacy.es.tc

  • Slut Bunwalla||

    That actually sounds kind of racist.

  • Enyap||

    What do you expect from a man who sees Woodrow Wilson as a major cool due.

  • CaptainSmartass||

    From now on, when you hear Obama speak, try replacing “let me be clear” with “let me lie to you,” and see if it makes more sense.

    Best take-away quote ever.

  • ||

    What a crappy president.

  • crap||

    Fuck you.

  • ||

    Fuck you.

    How do you think I feel?

  • ||

    Better to be "Mr. Teleprompter," than, (psst....everyone who does speeches or does the news is reading from something...sportcasters, Glenn Beck, Hannity, you idiot!) than W. sitting there reading to school chridren, not knowing what to do next, having just found out he'd been ass-f**ked for all of human history by one, Osama Bin Laden. You ass st**ns are just upset that your "hook on phonics" President will go down as the worst President ever...it's already sealed...You can talk about deficit spending all you want for short term comfort. But facts are stubborn things:
    - 2008 spending: 1.3 trillion; 2009 spending: 1.5 trillion.

    - Overall budget deficit: 11.5 trillion, 10 trillion accumulated from 2001-2008.
    --Part of that spending is for American funded, "single payer" healthcare for the citizens of Iraq.
    - He kept us safe for 7 1/2 years of an 8 year presidency.
    - He did not bother to leave his month-long vacation in Crawford after getting the Bin Laden briefing in Aug 2001. Oh, yeah, W. set the record for Presidential days on vacation....while running two wars!!!
    - U.S. soldiers electrocuted by W's no-bid contractor, KBR.
    - U.S. Soldiers blown up by IEDs due to sub-standard equipment.
    - Eight years in two countries fighting less than 1000 al Qaeda fighters.
    - He sends a 1000 soldiers after the most wanted man in U.S. in 2001, allowing him to get away.

  • ||

    Danny Collins, all your hate and lies will never erase the facts of how this all began and why you traitors must "CLINTONIZE" President Bush.

    The most expensive blow jobs in history. Democrats love historic things and this will continue to cost us. Just as every single democrat lies comes with dollars signs.

    "When democrats lied three million died"

    "To be brief, your words are killing us"
    Sound familiar?

    "You can talk about deficit spending all you want for short term comfort."

    That is all you lying losers do. Like the smug arrogant p*&*k in the White House, all talk talk. The party of democrats are criminal frauds and belong in prison. They are after all very proud of the fact that 85% vote democrat.

    Nobody goes through without telling a lie. The difference is that DEMOCRATS SPEND A LIFETIME TELLING LIES

  • JoshInHB||

    It's time to ask if Obama is able to tell truth. All politicians lie a lot, but I can't remember this guy ever telling the truth about anything.

  • Jersey Patriot||

    He promised to escalate Afghanistan, and he's doing it.

  • JoshInHB||

    When?
    Before or after he promised a new approach or a way our or some other bullshit?

  • G Mc||

    Eh, he holds a political office, what do you expect? What really matters are the policies behind the words.

  • ||

    Yeah, it's really hard to fool the public.

  • ||

    I had a friend from middle school post Obama's Nobel speech on facebook with the comment "Wow, what a great speech!"

    I unfriended him.

  • Masturbatin' Pete||

    Well, your boy is a libertarian-leaning conservative, and I didn't think the speech was that bad for Obama.

    I'm grading on a curve, but he gets a good, solid B+

  • JoshInHB||

    Obama- "I don't bring with me a solutions to war..."

    No Shit

    "We are the change we've been waiting for"

    WTF

    "This is the moment when the waters started to receed."

    Huh??

    This fucker speaks in such generalities and platitudes that no two people hear the same thing. How come the fucking intelligent educated people in this coutry are the most likely to fall for this bullshit.

  • ||

    Wouldn't that be "defriended?"

  • HeadTater||

    He won't increase our deficit by one dime...

    He will increase it by several billion dimes.

    Big sunrise, a politician is lying and twisting information beyond recognition to serve his agenda. Never saw that one coming.

  • ||

    Just don't tell our President what comes after "Trillion"

  • Morris||

    The appearance of Sullum's name is a signal that we're about to be treated to run-of-the-mill right-wing drivel.

  • Slut Bunwalla||

    HURRRR DUR HURRRR

  • Gilbert Martin||

    The quality of trolls around here has definitely been on the decline.

    Maybe some of Obama's "stimulus" money should have been allocted to troll training camps.

  • BakedPenguin||

    I hear Guantanamo's about to get some space real soon.

  • Sean W. Malone||

    Seriously though, what is going on with all these new trolls!??

    You don't even get trolling this bad on YouTube.

  • ||

    I'm doing my best but there are some pretty tough acts to follow.

  • ||

    fuck you

  • GILMORE||

    Right.

    Because things like, "ending the drug war" etc. are total 'right-wing drivel'.

    It almost makes me pine for LoneWacko

  • ||

    Let me be clear! Great article even if those who can't understand it present the false hope of literacy and are intransigently obscuring those with knowledge. Obama speach is the best, a more literate Yogi Berra! Onward to Copenhagen for more from Mr. Teleprompter!

  • ||

    Let me be clear! Great article even if those who can't understand it present the false hope of literacy and are intransigently obscuring those with knowledge. Obama speach is the best, a more literate Yogi Berra! Onward to Copenhagen for more from Mr. Teleprompter!

  • ||

    Better to be "Mr. Teleprompter," than, (psst....everyone who does speeches or does the news is reading from something...sportcasters, Glenn Beck, Hannity, you idiot!) than W. sitting there reading to school chridren, not knowing what to do next, having just found out he'd been ass-f**ked for all of human history by one, Osama Bin Laden. You ass st**ns are just upset that your "hook on phonics" President will go down as the worst President ever...it's already sealed...You can talk about deficit spending all you want for short term comfort. But facts are stubborn things:
    - 2008 spending: 1.3 trillion; 2009 spending: 1.5 trillion.

    - Overall budget deficit: 11.5 trillion, 10 trillion accumulated from 2001-2008.
    --Part of that spending is for American funded, "single payer" healthcare for the citizens of Iraq.
    - He kept us safe for 7 1/2 years of an 8 year presidency.
    - He did not bother to leave his month-long vacation in Crawford after getting the Bin Laden briefing in Aug 2001. Oh, yeah, W. set the record for Presidential days on vacation....while running two wars!!!
    - U.S. soldiers electrocuted by W's no-bid contractor, KBR.
    - U.S. Soldiers blown up by IEDs due to sub-standard equipment.
    - Eight years in two countries fighting less than 1000 al Qaeda fighters.
    - He sends a 1000 soldiers after the most wanted man in U.S. in 2001, allowing him to get away.

  • Sean W. Malone||

    You realize that no one here was a fan of Bush, right? Poke around here a bit and then try to understand we're not a place for neocons. So... Yeah... You're retarded.

  • ||

    So what you're saying is Bush bad, Obama worse.

    No quibble there. Carry on. But no need for a wall of text next time.

  • ||

    Largest deficits is very misleading.
    When considered as a proportion of GDP current deficits are not so bad.

  • Sean W. Malone||

    When considered as a proportion of GDP, you get the most misleading understanding of all time. Because (wait for it)...

    GDP includes government spending!

    The formula goes like this: GDP = private consumption + gross investment + government spending + net exports

    So guess what, when government racks up massive deficits by spending a shitload of money it doesn't have, GDP increases. GDP also increases when you print a ton of money. So the more money government burns, the bigger GDP appears to be - and thus the lower percentage of GDP the Debt is.

    So, no, "largest deficits" (adjusted for inflation) is exactly the way it needs to be discussed. Debt as a percent of GDP is a really stupid way to look at it that makes things look a lot better than they really are - especially when you have a continually ballooning government like we have in the US.

  • ||

    Which is why the Democrats under Clinton mandated GDP instead of the more rational GNP (GROSS NATIONAL PRODUCT) as the standard. This was of course quickly adopted by their tools in the MSM.

    The GNP too easily showed that the damn communists were spending us into a 3rd world hellhole.

    The current estimate is that Soetoro is on schedule to increase it to 60% of GNP by the end of the year. Up from 41% under Bush.

    Why is GNP important, you leftist tools, because it measures the private amount of wealth or product which is being produced, out of which the government must confiscate it share to pay for your "freebies".

  • GILMORE||

    Add to the list:

    1 - making sure to remind everyone that whatever happens to be going wrong with wars, health care, the economy, whatever, is completely and totally the fault of the previous administration and "discredited philosophies of the past"

    2 - mention 'greed and recklessness' as synonymous with anything not currently run by the government

  • Michael Redbourn||

    The Dems are damned if they vote on the health bill and damned if they don't.

    http://tinyurl.com/demsaredamned

    The alarm bells are ringing and the sirens are approaching, so some feel that they might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, but others don't.

  • ||

    Better to be "Mr. Teleprompter," than, (psst....everyone who does speeches or does the news is reading from something...sportcasters, Glenn Beck, Hannity, you idiot!) than W. sitting there reading to school chridren, not knowing what to do next, having just found out he'd been ass-f**ked for all of human history by one, Osama Bin Laden. You ass st**ns are just upset that your "hook on phonics" President will go down as the worst President ever...it's already sealed...You can talk about deficit spending all you want for short term comfort. But facts are stubborn things:
    - 2008 spending: 1.3 trillion; 2009 spending: 1.5 trillion.

    - Overall budget deficit: 11.5 trillion, 10 trillion accumulated from 2001-2008.
    --Part of that spending is for American funded, "single payer" healthcare for the citizens of Iraq.
    - He kept us safe for 7 1/2 years of an 8 year presidency.
    - He did not bother to leave his month-long vacation in Crawford after getting the Bin Laden briefing in Aug 2001. Oh, yeah, W. set the record for Presidential days on vacation....while running two wars!!!
    - U.S. soldiers electrocuted by W's no-bid contractor, KBR.
    - U.S. Soldiers blown up by IEDs due to sub-standard equipment.
    - Eight years in two countries fighting less than 1000 al Qaeda fighters.
    - He sends a 1000 soldiers after the most wanted man in U.S. in 2001, allowing him to get away.

  • BigManRestless||

    Hmmm...seems like I've seen this before somewhere. Not sure where though. Somewhere nearby...

  • ||

    So you have nothing to say, but feel the need to do it three times? Not sure if you are aware, but Bush hasn't been president for some time now.

  • ||

    I am so thankful that people are waking up to the fact that Obama lies all of the time. It drives me nuts when people take him at his word and ignore his actions.

    Thank you for this clarifying article.

  • ||

    Obama is a fraud who should never have been elected. Biggest liar and spender ever!

  • ||

    Jacob, "let me be clear there are those who will spin this column so as to paint you as one of those who just say no but have no plan".
    This is a masterful analysis of Obama's oratory which is eloquently delivered but substantively disingenuous and laced with blatant dishonesty......he's a con man and he's getting away with his con. He would sign a 2000 page health care reform bill if the title page said "Health Care Reform" and the other 1999 pages were blank...HE WOULD HAVE REFORMED HEALTH CARE WHEN THOSE BEFORE HIM COULDN'T. On this issue it's about him and history; on all issues it's about him.

  • ||

    @ M Pete: don't forget he whistles his "s", too.

  • Masturbatin' Pete||

    Oh yes, it gratessssssss.

  • ||

    Obama....

    The constant lying.
    The childish whining.
    The disgraceful bowing.
    The staggering arrogance.
    The poisonous radicalism.
    The dangerous narcissism.
    The astounding incompetence.

    Obama wants to put as much of the private economy under government control as possible to create his nanny state utopia where he is the boy king.

    Let's continue to stand strong against Obama in every way and get Congress out of the hands of the insane Pelosi and Reid in 2010.

    Obama is a smug, smirking con man. Nothing more.

  • ||

    “I reject the false choice between securing this nation and wasting billions of taxpayer dollars,” he declared in March. So according to Obama, we can secure the nation and waste billions of taxpayer dollars..."

    Since he claims it's a false choice, my take is that according to Obama, in choosing to secure the nation you effectively choose to waste billions of dollars. P-BO just sent 30,000 troops to Afghanistan to secure the nation- he evidently wanted to waste billions of dollars as well. Idiot!

  • REDEYE||

    There are those who would say Jacob Sullum is only a racist. I reject the false choice that Jacob Sullum is either a fierce partisna or a racist. Let me be clear, anyone who disagrees with the President is both a fierce partisan AND a racist (and probably a homophobe)!

  • ||

    He farts in elevators, too.

  • ||

    May I just say that the Reasonoids have been en fuego in Obama's America. My all time favorite being Gillespie: " I look forward to tomorrow's press conference, when Obama trains his laser-beam brain on the question of whether Razzles is a candy or a gum". I need to check in daily to assure myself that the world has not, in fact, gone mad. We are waiting for the change that we were seeking that we are that we were waiting for, or some such nonsense.

  • Kaisha ||

    “there are those who simply don't believe Washington can bring about this change”

    “there are those who will say that we do not go far enough"

    I love this flourish Obama uses to try and sound like such a sensible moderate chap- always dispassionately finding the middle ground.

  • abercrombie milano||

    My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I'm sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won't get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books.

  • ||

    learned a lot.UGG Kensington

  • Pokemon||

    i hope President Obama get selected again. i think that he is alot better than others.

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