In Obama's speeches, one favorite phrase: 'Let me be clear'

The Washington Post's Alec MacGillis explains what President Obama means when he uses the phrase "let me be clear."
By Alec MacGillis and Paul Farhi
Sunday, January 17, 2010

Whether President Obama's upcoming State of the Union address focuses on jobs, health care, foreign policy or something else entirely, there is one thing we can count on: Obama will make himself absolutely clear.

All politicians have their verbal tics -- say, John McCain's "my friends" -- but few resort to their crutches as often as Obama relies on his "let me be clear" set-up. He deploys it in formal speeches as well as in impromptu remarks, meaning that the White House speechmakers have keyed in on the boss's security blanket.

"Let me be clear," Obama said when he introduced himself to the country at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. "We have real enemies in the world. These enemies must be found. They must be pursued. And they must be defeated."

Talking about health care in July: "Let me be absolutely clear: Medicare is in place, and as long as I'm here, Medicare will continue to be in place."

And when he got word of his Nobel Peace Prize in October: "Let me be clear: I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments."

Plenty of others have taken note of this habit, but they usually dismiss it as a standard time-buying device, like Bill Clinton's "make no mistake" or Richard Nixon's eerily similar "let me make one thing perfectly clear." But Obama's declarations of clarity are far more than a little presidential throat-clearing.

When Obama is being "clear" these days, he is saying something quite different than when he was being clear in 2007 and 2008. His shifting use of the phrase traces the arc of Obama's time on the national stage, from campaign sensation to a president beset with challenges that rhetoric alone cannot overcome. In a presidency in which everything is murkier than Obama could have imagined, the "let me be clear" preface has become a signal that what follows will be anything but.

In the halcyon days of the presidential campaign, candidate Obama was "absolutely clear" in driving home his main points and asserting himself against his rivals. Perhaps acknowledging that his rhetoric could be opaque at times, he used the line as punctuation that said: Here's what I really think, without equivocation or ambiguity.

Obama employed it in the summer of 2007 to make the case for his candidacy: "Now, let's be clear, it's not enough just to change parties in this election. . . . If we hope to truly transform this country, we have to change our politics, too."

He used it to rebut doubters: "Some folks say, 'We're just not sure America is ready for an African American president,' " he said in South Carolina in November 2007. "Let me be clear: I never would have begun this campaign if I weren't confident I was going to win."

He used it to contrast his opposition to the Iraq war with Hillary Rodham Clinton's record. "She tried to suggest that, well, my opposition was just a speech in 2002, and since that time I've been inconsistent," he said in March 2008. "Let me be absolutely clear here. I opposed this war in 2002. I opposed it in 2003, '04, '05, '06 and '07."

And he was just as unequivocal in late 2007 about the Iraq troop buildup: "On Iraq, we hear that the surge is succeeding. Let me be clear: The surge is not the solution to Iraq's problems because it is not achieving the political benchmarks that were the stated purpose of our troop increase."

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