The Real Hostages

The trouble with Obama's favorite metaphor


Who are the hostage takers? To hear the Obama White House tell it, they are the Republicans, and perhaps some bankers. But the metaphor is a clunky one at a time when actual, live Americans are being held hostage by enemy countries.

The term came up most recently in the context of the debate over the debt ceiling increase. Last week, aboard Air Force One, Mr. Obama's spokesman, Jay Carney, looked back at the debt ceiling negotiations and described "Congress—in this case, the Republicans—being willing to hold the economy hostage to a political agenda."

With this administration, the "hostage" accusation has a long history.

On January 21, 2010, President Obama, calling for passage of financial "reform," promised, "Never again will the American taxpayer be held hostage by a bank that is 'too big to fail.'"

On July 22, 2010, signing into law an extension of employment benefits, the president complained that it had been "held hostage to partisan tactics."

On July 31, 2010, Mr. Obama trotted out the hostage metaphor again in connection with the Small Business Jobs Act. "I'm calling on the Republican leaders in the Senate to stop holding America's small businesses hostage to politics, and allow an up-or-down vote on this small business jobs bill," he said.

On September 20, 2010, in a White House blog post headlined, "No Excuse for Holding Middle Class Tax Cuts Hostage," an aide to President Obama, Jen Psaki, wrote, "House Minority Whip Eric Cantor took the Congressional Republicans' commitment to holding middle class tax cuts hostage to a new level."

On June 29, 2011, the White House put out a statement by the mayor of Laredo, Texas, Raul Salinas, complaining that, "For too long, comprehensive immigration reform has been held hostage to political posturing and special-interest wrangling and to the pervasive sentiment in Washington that tackling such a thorny and emotional issue is inherently bad politics."

Got that? "Middle class tax cuts," financial reform, extended unemployment benefits, "comprehensive immigration reform," the debt ceiling increase, the Small Business Jobs Act—whenever this White House wants something, it seems reflexively to portray the situation as a hostage crisis. One might think President Obama would want to avoid the Carter-era references, given the potential political reminders of a one-term Democratic president beset by stagflation. But Mr. Obama seems drawn to the hostage metaphor as inexorably as Senator Schumer is to his daggers.

Not that Republicans have themselves totally refrained from making hostage-taking accusations. In July of this year, the Republican congresswoman from Minnesota who is running for President, Michele Bachmann, said, "President Obama is holding the full faith and credit of the United States hostage so that he can continue his spending spree."

What makes it all the more off-putting is the fact that live Americans are being held hostage in foreign lands even as President Obama and his aides prattle on about the Small Business Jobs Act or extended unemployment benefits as if those pieces of legislation had heartbeats and families and were languishing in some totalitarian prison. Reagan and George W. Bush foreign policy official Elliott Abrams has pointed out at least two such cases, involving three Americans.

Alan Gross, a USAID contractor sent to Cuba to help its Jewish community, has been in Castro's jails since December 2009. Earlier this month, a Cuban Communist "court" reportedly rejected Mr. Gross's appeal of a 15-year sentence. He is 62 years old, his mother-in-law and daughter are battling cancer, and he has lost 100 pounds in Cuba's prisons.

Iran, which initiated the original Carter-era American hostage crisis, is also at it again. Earlier this month, the Islamic Republic's two American hostages, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, were sentenced to eight years. They are 29 years old and have been imprisoned since July 2009, when they were captured while hiking near Iran's border with Iraq's Kurdish region.

The next time President Obama or his aides feel the temptation to denounce hostage-takers, they'd do us all a favor by leaving the congressional Republicans alone and focusing on the governments holding Messrs. Gross, Bauer, and Fattal. Those foreign governments, not American politicians, are the real hostage-takers.

Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of Samuel Adams: A Life.