“Let us declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour. This single step would raise the incomes of millions of working families. It could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank; rent or eviction; scraping by or finally getting ahead. For businesses across the country, it would mean customers with more money in their pocket.” (2013 State of the Union, speech)
Above is our ever loquacious President deploying some of his favorite rhetorical weapons and, has he have done with many of his speeches over these very long years, challenging the listener to decide whether he is hopelessly deluded and naïve or utterly cynical and duplicitous.
The first sentence is the mother of all non-sequiturs – “Let us declare …etc.” Yes, let us declare whatever makes us appear even more compassionate and virtuous … maybe the onset of the millennium, swords into plowshares, where no one “should” be overworked and exhausted, and then (to make sure it happens) propose to lower the work week to 15 hours. This is a classic Obama trope of misdirection and megalomania. There is no logical or empirical connection between the Hope and Change declaration for the end of poverty and the proposed action, a partisan political ploy.
One must understand that the President’s declarations, whatever the subject may be, have almost always been by design self-referential, in effect, all about Obama, The One. They are intended to display and dramatize his boundless compassion – in His America no one should have to live in poverty if we simply follow his lead. Second, they are always, even by the forgiving standards for politicians on the hustle, grandiose and fantastical. In 2008 his election, he said, would “heal the planet,” “slow the rise of the oceans” and “transform America and the world.” This man does not waste his valuable time or unique talents on small things. He is about, in his own words, “transformation”. Every speech was supposed to be equivalent to the Gettysburg Address, every appearance a diffusion of edification and enlightenment.
The rest of this excerpt is a typically embarrassing and sloppy descent into the real world which is terra incognita for Obama. Yes, maybe the minimum wage “could” mean the difference between groceries and the food bank, etc. but likely not. The minimum wage has been raised many times over the decades and now we have record levels of youth unemployment and food stamp reliance. However, if we raise it one more time, the President avers, poverty will vanish. “For businesses across the country, it would mean customers with more money in their pocket.” Yes, but businesses across the country will be employing fewer people since the cost of labor will be raised. None of these details are important or relevant in the long term because for Obama and his admirers it is always the intentions that matter, and his are the highest and purest, worthy of declaration in yet one more speech. The most important outcome for Mr. Obama is that we all continue to understand how much he cares about the unfortunate. The world, however, will turn, the minimum wage will no doubt be raised, and, poverty will persist and this his solemn declaration will be forgotten along with his many other rhetorical excursions into fantasy land.
In his speeches Obama often asserts a fake unanimity as he urges “us” in this instance to join him in this inspiring exorcism of penury. The trap is thus set. Who can oppose the end of poverty for anyone? Who wants anyone to be evicted or without groceries? And so, from Obama the obvious, simple solution – raise the minimum wage. Those who might possibly object must be selfish, stupid or partisan. There is no other explanation, and this is how he will orchestrate the conversation. There will always be someone with a corroded character and hidden agenda standing in his way and making self-serving excuses. Obama’s framework is always one of invidious comparison. The solutions to big problems, his solutions, the only reasonable solutions, are obvious, straight forward and simple and make life better and fairer for the many. The obstacles to the solutions are: the few, the mean-spirited, unenlightened folks in opposition who want the many to suffer while they prosper.
Considers this piece of an April 2011 speech:
“We are going to have to ask everybody to sacrifice. And if we’re asking community colleges to sacrifice, if we’re asking people who are going to see potentially fewer services in their neighborhoods to make a little sacrifice, then we can ask millionaires and billionaires to make a little sacrifice.”
Who exactly is this “we” doing the asking? It is Obama, himself, of course, but he is setting up yet another invidious comparison as conjures himself into a virtuous collective (“We are the Ones we’ve been waiting for…” as he announced in his 2008 campaign). In contrast to the many, the needy and oppressed who must sacrifice in the essentials are those billionaires don’t even want to give “a little.” Obama puts great rhetorical stress on this “little” he is “asking” – how could the most reasonable and decent of individuals who have so much possibility object? It is another way of scapegoating and demonizing an easy target, another way of making himself appear to be the benevolent, selfless problem solver obstructed by a few selfish, inconsiderate reactionaries. Of course, he is not “asking,” either – more misdirection and subterfuge from the candidate who promised the most transparent administration in history. The “sacrifice” as little as says it will be will not be voluntary; it will be imposed.
Obama operates in a Manichean world of friends and enemies. In one of the most candidate moments of his presidency he told his followers in a Univision speech in 2010, “we’re gonna reward our friends and punish our enemies” and his rhetoric is always shaped with this goal in mind.
So, when Obama utters those simple pronouns “we” or “us” the listener needs to grab the hand, twist the decoder ring frantically, decipher the message with care and prepare for another admonition followed by more restrictions or regulations.
After the Newtown shooting President Obama in one of his many speeches on the topic said, “We must change!” Again, who is the “we” that has to change? Well, clearly, not him. Given that the person directly responsible for the carnage was already dead this was yet one more rhetorical juke, a move to set up and “punish” those he perceives as his political “enemies.” The change he has in mind is to turn the screws on these miscreants long held in his cross hairs who had nothing to do with the tragic events. This unfortunate target had already been named and identified in an unguarded moment in 2008, those “bitter clingers to their guns…” Mr. Obama does not approve of gun ownership (except for the government paid agents who guard him and his family) and, as we have come to learn, he believes that his approval or disapproval comes with a moral authority that should bind all of us.
So as we look back over the last seven years of teleprompter sweetness and contemplate his departure, let us with a modesty and sincerity approximating that of our President declare that this nation has had the wisest, most virtuous, most compassionate of leaders and that we are all now so convinced – let him then for a long season, be silent.