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

By Alec MacGillis and Paul Farhi
Sunday, January 17, 2010; B01

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."

On a few occasions in the presidential race, he used the phrase to protect himself against attacks or misunderstandings, as a sort of preemptive strike. When he declared in March 2008 that ending the war in Iraq would save the country billions of dollars, he first said: "Now let me be clear: When I am president, I will spare no expense to ensure that our troops have the equipment and support they need."

And he employed it to minimize the damage from his comments in April 2008 about "bitter" working-class voters who cling to guns or religion: "Let me absolutely clear. It would be pretty hard for me to be condescending towards people of faith since I'm a person of faith and have done more than most other campaigns in reaching out specifically to people of faith."

But more often than not, the phrase sought to amplify a straightforward point. Amid swirling talk about his patriotism, Obama fired back in August 2008, "Let me be clear: I will let no one question my love of this country." As the financial system collapsed the next month, he moved to capitalize on the moment: "Let's be clear: What we've seen the last few days is nothing less than the final verdict on an economic philosophy that has completely failed." And in October, he fended off the "redistributionist" label: "I heard Senator McCain say I'm more concerned with who gets your piece of the pie than with growing the pie. But let's be absolutely clear: After eight years of Bush-McCain economics, the pie is shrinking."

Two weeks later, Obama was elected president, and matters that were once clear suddenly became less so.

Instead of making bold declarations, Obama was now setting policies that threatened to conflict with campaign promises, such as his vow not to raise taxes on anyone except the wealthy. Very quickly, "let be me clear" went from offense to defense, becoming a rebuttal on points where the facts were not that evident. To his opponents, it became a sign of obfuscation or indecision to follow.

"Now let me be clear -- let me be absolutely clear, because I know you will end up hearing some of the same claims that rolling back these tax breaks means a massive tax increase on the American people," he said in his joint address to Congress in February. "If your family earns less than $250,000 a year, a quarter-million dollars a year, you will not see your taxes increased a single dime. I repeat: not one single dime." Since then, several proposals have muddied that assertion, including the Obama-approved tax on costly health insurance plans.

As the health-care debate heated up last summer, Obama's calls for clarity intensified. "Let me be absolutely clear about what health reform means for you," he said in July. ". . . It will keep government out of health-care decisions. It will give you the option to keep your insurance if you're happy with it." In fact, the government's role in health care would increase under the legislation, and the changes would, in all likelihood, result in many people ending up with different coverage through reasons not of their own choosing.

The way Obama has deployed the expression during the first year of his presidency underscores its limits as a communication tool. "The risk in using the phrase is that it could imply there are times when he's not being clear," says the Brookings Institution's Stephen Hess, who worked in the Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations. "The corollary of that is one big fog."

Consider Obama's remarks at his jobs summit last month, where uncertainty loomed over how he would balance the competing imperatives of creating jobs and controlling the deficit. "So let it be clear," he said. "I am open to every demonstrably good idea, and I want to take every responsible step to accelerate job creation. We also, though, have to face the fact that our resources are limited." Translation: I want to try more job creation, but it can't cost too much -- a message that could have been said more clearly.

But it has been in the realm of foreign policy where hazy realities have differed the most from the cut-and-dried notions of the campaign, and where the president's "let's be clears" have been flying the thickest.

In his April speech in Prague, where he called for a world free of nuclear weapons, Obama sought to preempt accusations of naivete. "Let me be clear: Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile activity poses a real threat, not just to the United States, but to Iran's neighbors and our allies," he declared. He went on to note that the Czech Republic and Poland had agreed to host a defense shield against long-range Iranian missiles, saying, "We will go forward with a missile defense system that is cost-effective and proven."

Just five months later, though, the issue proved less clear, as the administration announced that it was replacing the long-range missile defenses proposed by President George W. Bush for Poland and the Czech Republic, mainly with a set of maritime-based defenses geared toward the short- and medium-range missile threat from Iran.

Meanwhile, in March, Obama promised clarity on Afghanistan. "So let me be clear: Al-Qaeda and its allies . . . are in Pakistan and Afghanistan," he said. "We have a clear and focused goal to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future."

But it turns out the plan was anything but clear, and the president spent months reevaluating his Afghanistan policy before giving a new speech in November, one full of Obama-esque nuance: The United States would add 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, but set a July 2011 timeline for drawing down; it would escalate forces in order to end the war.

To convey such dualities and shades of gray, nothing better than to declare the situation "clear." Obama used the word 11 times in the speech. To rebut the charge that his lengthy deliberations had slowed down military efforts, he said, "Let me be clear: There has never been an option before me that called for troop deployments before 2010, so there has been no delay or denial of resources necessary for the conduct of the war during this review period."

And to gird the country for an escalation that even he seemed ambivalent about, the president declared: "Now, let me be clear: None of this will be easy. The struggle against violent extremism will not be finished quickly, and it extends well beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan."

In other words: Governing is messy and the world is cloudy. Is that clear?

Alec MacGillis and Paul Farhi are staff writers of The Washington Post. Related Outlook coverage: Recent looks at President Obama's rhetoric include Michael D. Shear's "Responsibility: It's Barack Obama's go-to word. But will it get old?" and Alec MacGillis's "Pragmatism: Sounds great, but what does he really mean?"

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