For Obama, Words Conceal the Indefensible

How the president uses language as a cover for the abuse of power.

Let President Obama be clear, will you? He seems to think it's important.

"The 'let me be clear' preface" is a recurring rhetorical tic for Obama, the Washington Post pointed out in 2010, and it's "become a signal that what follows will be anything but."

On Aug. 9, with his approval rating at a near all-time low of 41 percent, facing sharp scrutiny over the National Security Agency's dragnet data-collection plan, Obama held a press conference where he insisted: "I want to make clear once again that America is not interested in spying on ordinary people."

At the same time, Obama's Justice Department released a white paper defending the proposition that the PATRIOT Act allowed the covert collection of all Americans' phone records for a period of seven years because, under the language of Section 215, they're "relevant to an authorized investigation" of international terrorism.

Has there ever been a president whose career has depended so heavily on the power of language? Obama leapt onto the political scene with a stirring keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and, on the campaign trail in 2008, when Hillary Clinton suggested her opponent was too fond of speechifying, he responded with yet another passionate speech, declaiming: "Don't tell me words don't matter."

He was right, words do matter. Which is why it's ironic that the public case for so many of Obama's policies depends on doing violence to plain language. To our various "wars" on drugs, crime, and terror — add Obama's "War on Words."

The day before Obama's defensive presser, the Post's Charles Krauthammer accused the president of launching "the world's first lexicological war," marked by "linguistic tricks," "deliberate misnomers" and "transparent euphemisms."

Indeed, the euphemisms may be the most transparent thing about the self-styled "most transparent administration in history." Krauthammer, an inveterate hawk, focused on phrases suggesting that the president lacks the stomach for the War on Terror, or "overseas contingency operations," in Obama's preferred coinage.

But Krauthammer missed some of Obama's most glaring euphemisms, deployed to "disguise the unpleasantness" of war.

Last year, the administration added a new phrase to the doublespeak lexicon. Americans slated for death by drone go on something called "the disposition matrix," which lacks the harsh clarity of "kill list."

Harry Truman famously redefined war in Korea as a "police action." For its 2011 Libyan adventure, the Obama Team did HST one better: Raining cruise missiles on Tripoli isn't "war," deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes insisted; it's "kinetic military action."

That's the kind of construction that makes your head hurt: "Kinetic," "resulting from motion" is the only kind of "action" you can have. What's the alternative? "Static" military action?

At times, it seems that Team Obama claims full-spectrum dominance over the English language itself. That's apparent in their legal position papers rationalizing undeclared wars, assassination of American citizens, and mass surveillance.

To get around the War Powers Resolution's limits on presidential war-making, State Department legal adviser Harold Koh argued that bombing Libya was "distinct from the kind of 'hostilities' contemplated" by the WPR.

In a DOJ memo that was leaked earlier this year, the administration claimed the right to kill U.S. Citizens who present an "imminent threat of violent attack." Despite what your dictionary may tell you, "imminent" doesn't mean "in the immediate future."

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I bet he cheats at Scrabble, too.

  • Sevo||

    Everybody knows the guy. You're sitting at a bar, having a couple with some buddies; there's some cash laying on the bar. He walks in and the cash suddenly disappears.
    Everybody knows the guy.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I wouldn't elect this fool to be the banker in Monopoly, let alone president.

  • John Galt||

    I'm sitting in a bar having a couple with my cash laying on the bar, and Obama walks in, the first thing I'm doing is picking up my money and putting it in my pocket where it'll be safe.

    Well, "safe" at least until he figures out some less direct way to steal it.

  • larry hammond||

    He walks up and says I see you have $100 in your pocket, give me 50%.

    You: Why?

    Him: For the children, social justice and what are you a terrorist?

    You: Huh?

    Him: Look, there is an group of armed enforcers outside, just hand over the $50 before things get ugly and you end up dead or in detention.

  • ΘJΘʃ de águila||

    "I only have $50 in my pocket."

    "That's okay, you can owe me the other $50. But there will late fees."

  • April06||

    just as Heather said I am shocked that any body can profit $5264 in 4 weeks on the internet. have you seen this page

  • Sevo||

    ..."What's the alternative?"...

    Less bullshit, but we're not gonna get that from Obama.

  • A Serious Man||

    To be fair to Team Obama, they do have a massive media complex that enables their habitual lying by covering for them and even fully embracing the lies. Wouldn't you be tempted if you had that kind of media collaboration?

  • Pro Libertate||

    No. See, this is why we should vote for people who only reluctantly seek public office, not those who crave it. The latter generally lack the virtues we expect from even the kid making our Big Macs.

  • Killazontherun||

    Do I spit in this one or wipe my ass with the bun? I should run for congress someday.

  • Bam!||

    "Reluctantly seek public office?" Those people don't run. I doubt they've ever run.

  • ||

    No, I wouldnt.

  • wwhorton||

    No, but I'm not gonna lie, the fraternizin' with starstruck interns after hours in the Oval Office would be tough to turn down.

  • Almanian!||

    The fraternizin's different.

  • John Galt||

    It's true the "news" media has been complicit from day one.

    During communist rule the Russian people had a saying about 'no truth in Pravda, no information in Izvestiya.' Too bad the American people so far haven't been intelligent enough to figure out we've got it no different.

  • GPZsug||

    How the president uses language as a cover for the abuse of power.

    He's not using it for cover. His whole administration is simply unintelligent. These people are intellectual lightweights. I'd be genuinely surprised if they scored above average on any standardized test.

  • PS wanders the Wasteland||

    When you look at Obama's unscripted speech it all big words with little substance and when you break it down to substance it is either banal or incredibly stupid. This talking in complicated sounding jargon to say stupid things MO works well with a compliant press and electorate that wants to pretend the guy is a genius.

  • ||

    We're talking about people who believe Castro when he mouths the right words, or Chavez, or even Stalin or Mao. Just say the right words, and there is not an action they will not excuse or ignore.

  • GPZsug||

    Obama's SCRIPTED speech is banal and stupid. Why anyone thinks he is a great orator is beyond me. Being able to talk in front of an audience while trying to touch the ceiling with one's chin and using long pauses instead of "umm"s aren't impressive.

  • Almanian!||

    This, and I mean since day 1. I can still remember one friend posting, "If he's not the greatest speaker in America..." And I thought, "If you're not the dumbest motherfucker...ever..."

  • rxc||

    They think he is a great orator because he juts his chin out when he speaks, just like FDR (PBUH) did.

  • BardMetal||

    That would just be proof that standardized tests are racist.

  • ||

    When your fawning, sycophantic base and the media will choke down even the most vile shit you feed them as long as it's worded in the appropriate way, why wouldn't you play word games? With TEAM BLUE, words work. Words are given more credence than action. Of course the result will be lies and distortions. Of course.

  • Pro Libertate||

    We need to talk to Larry Fishburne about those reality pills he has.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    I think he gave up on those when faced with the reality of millions of people watching his daughter take it up the pooper for money.

    Jus' sayin'

  • Pro Libertate||

    He handled the insanity of filming Apocalypse Now, right?

  • wwhorton||

    I could be wrong but I thought that involved a great deal of cocaine.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Cocaine is a hell of a drug.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    "I think he gave up on those when faced with the reality of millions of people watching his daughter take it up the pooper for money."

    To what are you alluding, and you you have video...I mean, gross!

  • Killazontherun||

    I want to make clear once again that America is not interested in spying on ordinary people

    If you keep your head down, pay taxes, never complain, why, most likely, we'll never even notice you.

  • grey||

    I don't think a libertarian would be considered ordinary. Ordinary would be who they say it will be, because...

  • The Late P Brooks||

    America is not interested in spying on ordinary people.

    But how will we know if you truly are ordinary, until we have tracked you, listened to your phone calls and studied your communications?

  • ΘJΘʃ de águila||

    Is America a person?

  • ΘJΘʃ de águila||

    Oh, yeah Betty la fea, America FERRERA!

  • sasob||

    I've had a great aunt or cousin or two whose first names were America - back in the late 19th century. I suppose they went by Amy for short.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    We keep electing attorneys and this is what we get.

  • VG Zaytsev||

    America is not interested in spying on ordinary people.

    But we have to do it for your own good.
    It hurts me, more than it hurts you.

  • Inigo M.||

    What strikes me in that quote is not the "ordinary" part, but the "America" part.

    He doesn't say, "I am not interested in spying..." Nor does he say, "My administration is not interested..." Not even "The government..." or "The NSA..."

    No, it's AMERICA, and her words come from his mouth. Just like Louis XIV, "l'etat est moi" -- I AM the state. What must it be like to walk around with such an incredibly enormous ego?

  • grey||

    Thanks for pointing out something else that now bothers me.

  • Monkey's Uncle||

    Wow, a politician lies. Sky still blue too? So how is all that hope and change working for you, progressives? Or are you lying to yourselves still? Just checkin' . . .

  • Number 2||

    Correct me if I am wrong, but aren't these the same people who wanted to disbar and incarcerate all of Bush's legal advisors for writing legal opinions that supported what he wanted to do?

    Funny how things change when you have the reins of power.

    And funny how supine the supposed watchdog press becomes when their man takes over.

  • Lady Bertrum||

    America is not interested in spying on ordinary people.

    They use "America" intentionally, not "The NSA", not "My administration". America because we're all America, right? You can trust yourself, right? The government is the people so the government is America, right?

    "Not interested" - meaning we have the ability but not the intentions. And why would we be interested? You're not doing anything wrong, right?

    "spying" - negative connotation. Why not monitoring? Why not recording? We wouldn't do that icky spying thing on our own, now would we? Spying is what creepy Russians do, not nice Americans.

    "ordinary people" - as opposed to extraordinary people? No. you're just an average Joe/Jane - the trustworthy type. Why the fuss Joe?

    Every single word in that sentence was precisely chosen to promote a vague sense of "We".

  • Inigo M.||

    No, I think the use of "America" was not meant to mean "we," unless it's the royal "we" as used by the Queen.

    It's a Freudian slip that reveals his belief that he is the living embodiment of the nation and therefore infallible.

  • VG Zaytsev||

    It's amazing how many weasel words he crams into a single sentence.

  • Curtisls87||

    What Lady Bertram just said is so true. The language was parsed as carefully as possible - it's just that no one in this administration knows how this actually sounds to people, because, well, they're all top men.

  • ΘJΘʃ de águila||

    "MAKE NO MISTAKE: I am a killer, a peeping-tom and a war criminal and I cover up all of George Bush's crimes so I can continue in his footsteps."

  • Anonymous Coward||

    "I want to make clear once again that America is not interested in spying on ordinary people."

    Stop spying on yourself! Stop spying on yourself! Stop spying on yourself!

    It's amazing how Obama can be both verbiose and juvenile in the same breath. Is that what they teach the TOP MEN out of Harvard Law?

    "Don't tell me words don't matter."

    Stephen Molyneaux does an excellent dissection of Obama's forays into neuro-linguistic programming.

  • grey||

    Thanks for the Molyneaux link, I discovered a few other good videos.

  • wwhorton||

    "Let me be clear..."

    - translation -

    "You can bet your children's college fund that whatever I'm about to say next is complete and utter bullshit intended to deflect suspicion..."

  • ||

    A politician? Talking out of his ass? Say it ain't so!

  • Lady Bertrum||

    I've accurately re-worded the sentence for the President below:

    Using a vaguely worded and little debated section of the Patriot Act my administration, through the NSA, has developed the capability, although not the legal or moral authority, to monitor and record all electronic communications of every American (and many non-Americans not residing in the US - but, whatever) whether or not that individual has had or is likely to have any interaction with any known or unknown individual who may be suspected of the intention to engage in a crime. We have this capability but promise not to use it on innocent Americans, but we reserve the right to determine what "innocent" or "ordinary" or "Americans" means. The abuse of certain groups of Americans by certain federal agencies like the IRS has nothing to do with this situation. We won't abuse this power because, fuck you, we say so. If you don't trust us you're not patriotic and also RACIST.

    Additionally, we were really going to tell you all about his but then that bastard Snowden totally stole our thunder and robbed us of the opportunity to fully disclose this program. Really.

  • Lady Bertrum||

    Actually, I should've just shortened the whole thing to just the "fuck you".

  • Ballz||

    Let me be clear, motherfucker.

  • space junk||

    "I want to make clear once again that America is not interested in spying on ordinary people."

    This almost sounds to me like he is defining America as the U.S. Government. I thought the average people like us made up America. Guess I had better learn my place... [sarcasm]

  • Lorenzo||

    Here's my problem. I teach high school AP English, and we begin with Orwell's 1984. Thee are several easily seen parallels between the elements in the novel and elements of the current administration. I have to actively restrain myself from turning every few chapters into an anti-Obama diatribe. I try very hard not to politicize my classroom. I could certainly go back to Bush et al for various examples, analogies, and such, but high school students have no real memories or experiences from pre-Obama.

  • ||

    I know progressive like to believe 1984 is about how a conservative world would look like but each time I read it, the more I'm convinced it applies to the left - socialism, communism and progressivism. It's them that support all the legislation that lead to 1984.

  • Gordilocks||

    I made the mistake of promulgating this very same argument in a thread on Facebook. The derp storm
    was lengthy and intense.

  • ||

    Yeah, I know. Pretty fucked up they would think otherwise.

  • mgd||

    They like to believe this? What, then, do they make of Ingsoc? And do they like to pretend that Animal Farm is about the American Revolution?

    1984 absolutely was meant to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of revolutionary socialism and its totalitarian impulses. Keep in mind that Orwell himself was a socialist, of the stripe that would most likely now be called a social democrat.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "I want to make clear once again that America is not interested in spying on ordinary people."

    It's not very interesting, but such is the price of power

  • ||

    Fine piece an I be nitpicking, but there is only one HST and he didn't live in DC.

    He lived in Woody Creek, CO.

  • LibertarianAmazon||

    I think this quote from the back of the book "Whiny Little Bitch: The Excuse Filled Presidency of Barack Obama" by Mike Cullen is apt in describing Obama's favorite phrase.

    "Obama's Favorite Phrase - 'Let me be clear' is the rhetorical equivalent of an exploding dye pack in a bag of cash. It indelibly marks all words that follow as false."


    Everything in this article really needed, needs, to be said.

  • exchef100||

    I welcome public debate of the contents of this article.

  • rxc||

    Progressives "doing violence to plain language"? I'm shocked, shocked.

    Its the fundamental bedrock of their strategy, starting with the own name.

  • sasob||

    They're the sort who think they can change reality by changing the words they use to describe it. All they actually change are their own minds. In other words - they come to believe their own bullshit, with all the consequences that entails for their future sanity.

  • April06||

    Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this - 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link,

  • Larakris||

    like Thelma responded I am startled that a mother can make $6821 in a few weeks on the computer. did you look at this web sitego to this site home tab for more detail---


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.