Recently, Barack Obama — a Demosthenes determined to elevate our politics from coarseness to elegance; a Pericles sent to ameliorate our rhetorical impoverishment — spoke at the University of Michigan. He came to that very friendly venue — in 2012, he received 67 percent of the vote in Ann Arbor’s county — after visiting a local sandwich shop, where a muse must have whispered in the presidential ear. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) had recently released his budget, so Obama expressed his disapproval by calling it, for the benefit of his academic audience, a “meanwich” and a “stinkburger.”
Try to imagine Franklin Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower or John Kennedy or Ronald Reagan talking like that. It is unimaginable that those grown-ups would resort to japes that fourth-graders would not consider sufficiently clever for use on a playground.
When Theodore Roosevelt was president, one of his good friends — he had been best man at TR’s 1886 wedding — was the British diplomat Cecil Spring Rice. So, when visitors to Washington wanted to learn about TR, they asked Rice about him, and Springie, as TR called him, would say: “You must always remember that the president is about 6.” Today’s president is older than that. But he talks like an arrested-development adolescent.
Anyone who has tried to engage a member of that age cohort in an argument probably recognizes the four basic teenage tropes, which also are the only arrows in Obama’s overrated rhetorical quiver. He employed them all last week when he went to the White House briefing room to exclaim, as he is wont to do, about the excellence of the Affordable Care Act.
First came the invocation of a straw man. Celebrating the ACA’s enrollment numbers, Obama, referring to Republicans, charged: “They said nobody would sign up.” Of course, no one said this. Obama often is what political philosopher Kenneth Minogue said of an adversary — “a pyromaniac in a field of straw men.”
Adolescents also try to truncate arguments by saying that nothing remains of any arguments against their arguments. Regarding the ACA, Obama said the debate is “settled” and “over.” Progressives also say the debate about catastrophic consequences of man-made climate change is “over,” so everyone should pipe down. And they say the debates about the efficacy of universal preschool, and the cost-benefit balance of a minimum-wage increase, are over. Declaring an argument over is so much more restful than engaging with evidence.
A third rhetorical move by argumentative adolescents is to declare that there is nothing to argue about because everything is going along swimmingly. Seven times Obama asserted that the ACA is “working.” That is, however, uninformative because it is ambiguous. The ethanol program is “working” in the sense that it is being implemented as its misguided architects intended. Nevertheless, the program is a substantial net subtraction from the nation’s well-being. The same can be said of sugar import quotas, or agriculture subsidies generally, or many hundreds of other government programs that are, unfortunately, “working.”
Finally, the real discussion-stopper for the righteous — and there is no righteousness like an adolescent’s — is an assertion that has always been an Obama specialty. It is that there cannot be honorable and intelligent disagreement with him. So last week, less than two minutes after saying that the argument about the ACA “isn’t about me,” Obama said some important opposition to the ACA is about him, citing “states that have chosen not to expand Medicaid for no other reason than political spite.”
This, he said, must be spiteful because expanding Medicaid involves “zero cost to these states.” Well. The federal government does pay the full cost of expansion — for three years. After that, however, states will pay up to 10 percent of the expansion’s costs, which itself will be a large sum. And the 10 percent figure has not been graven on stone by the finger of God. It can be enlarged whenever Congress wants, as surely it will, to enable more federal spending by imposing more burdens on the states. Yet Obama, who aspired to tutor Washington about civility, is incapable of crediting opponents with other than base motives.
About one thing Obama was right, if contradictory. He said Americans want politicians to talk about other subjects — but that Democrats should campaign by celebrating the wondrousness of the ACA. This would be candid because it is what progressivism is — a top-down, continent-wide tissue of taxes, mandates and other coercions. Is the debate about it over? Not quite.