The Clarity of False Choices
Obama's favorite rhetorical tricks
â€œThere are those who claim we have to choose between paying down our deficitsâ€¦and investing in job creation and economic growth,â€ President Obama said in December. â€œThis is a false choice.â€ During the same speech, he asked his audience to â€œlet me just be clearâ€ that, having racked up the biggest budget deficits ever, he is embracing fiscal responsibility, as reflected in his vow that â€œhealth insurance reformâ€ will not increase the deficit â€œby one dime.â€
For connoisseurs of Obama-speak, the address featured a trifecta, combining three of his favorite rhetorical tropes: the vague reference to â€œthose whoâ€ question his agenda, the â€œfalse choiceâ€ they use to deceive the public, and the determination to â€œbe clearâ€ 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 â€œpaying down our deficitsâ€ and â€œinvesting in job creation and economic growth.â€ 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 allâ€"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 schools, for example, is a dubious strategy for spurring economic growth, or even educational growth, since there is no clear relationship between spending and student achievement.
Likewise, Obamaâ€™s promise that health insurance subsidies will not expand the deficit may be â€œclear,â€ but itâ€™s not realistic, since itâ€™s based on accounting tricks and wishful thinking. Legislators avoided counting a $240 billion Medicare â€œfixâ€ 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: â€œEarmarks have given legislators the opportunity to direct federal money to worthy projectsâ€; the U.S. government â€œhas no interest in running GMâ€; Medicare cuts will be made â€œin a way that protects our senior citizensâ€ from changes in benefits or costs; and a â€œpublic optionâ€ for health care, which would invite businesses to offload their medical costs onto taxpayers and could drive private insurers from the market, â€œwould not impact those of you who already have insurance.â€ From now on, when you hear Obama speak, replace â€œlet me be clearâ€ with â€œlet me lie to youâ€ and see if it makes more sense.
Speaking of making sense, some of the â€œfalse choicesâ€ Obama has identified in the last year are more puzzling than misleading. â€œI reject the false choice between securing this nation and wasting billions of taxpayer dollars,â€ he declared in March. So according to Obama, we can secure this nation and waste billions of taxpayer dollars. Actually, that sounds about right.
Obamaâ€™s depiction of his critics is further removed from reality. In the health care debate, he says, â€œthere are those who simply donâ€™t believe Washington can bring about this changeâ€; â€œthere are those who will say that we do not go far enoughâ€; â€œthere are those who would have us try what has already failed, who would defend the status quoâ€; â€œthere are those who will oppose reform no matter whatâ€; and â€œthere are those who want to seek political advantage.â€
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 and less government involvement? In Obamaâ€™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.
Senior Editor Jacob Sullum (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a syndicated columnist. Â© Copyright 2009 by Creators Syndicate Inc.