The Magazine

The Master of Misdirection

How Obama maintains his popularity.

Apr 13, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 29 • By FRED BARNES
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In football, it's called misdirection. When the ball is snapped, offensive linemen pull from the line of scrimmage and head to the right or left. A running back takes off in the same direction. But it's a deception. The play, a run or a pass, actually goes in the other direction. It's a clever tactic--pretending to head one way while going another--that also works in politics.

President Obama is the master of misdirection. His skill in using this tactic is a key to his success as a candidate and to his popularity as president. He is a great salesman, marketing his product--the liberal agenda, plus a few add-ons--in a manner that disguises what he's really up to.

Misdirection isn't the same as exaggeration. Everyone understands that politicians inflate their accomplishments. So their self-puffery is discounted. Misdirection is different. It is meant to deceive.

When Obama intervened last week to prop up General Motors, he said he was merely helping the company get through a rough patch. "Let me be clear," he said. "The United States government has no interest or intention of running GM." Rather, his aim is to give GM "an opportunity" to restructure itself and become "a stronger and more competitive company." Obama made this sound like the corporate equivalent of car repair.

The media have likened Obama to Franklin Roosevelt. But Obama's intervention at GM goes far beyond anything FDR attempted in the New Deal or even dreamed of. Obama fired GM president Richard Wagoner and at least half of the board of directors. He picked the new president. He guaranteed the warranties on GM cars. He dispatched a White House team to Detroit to impose a new business plan and to negotiate with bondholders and union chiefs the terms of a managed bankruptcy.

On top of that, Obama advised GM and the other auto companies about the kind of cars they should be producing. Since auto executives remain in their jobs at Obama's pleasure, they aren't free to ignore his advice. Besides, he offered an incentive. He called on Congress to provide a "generous credit" to owners of old cars if they turn in their clunkers and buy "cleaner" cars.

Why wasn't Obama candid about his unprecedented action? He had good reasons. Bailing out auto companies, especially GM, is enormously unpopular. Better to pretend he's only tinkering. By grabbing control of GM, he's able to advance his agenda of slowing the production of trucks and SUVs--without saying so. These are the vehicles people love, but his allies in the environmental movement regard them as evil.

Obama describes himself as a fierce supporter of capitalism. "I strongly believe in a free market system," he said last week in London after the G20 conference. As for the rich, he likes them too. "In America, at least, people don't resent the rich," he said. "They want to be rich. And that's good."

These are recurring themes of the president. If they are lip service, they are frequently invoked lip service. His "stimulus" program was designed to spur economic growth, capitalism's primary goal. He based his request for authority to take over any financial institution on the need to prevent a collapse "that could bring down the financial system." And he wants to "make sure" American businesses offer "good products and good services that they believe they can market to the rest of the world." He's a free market guy.

His policies tell a different story. There are few incentives to economic growth except the dubious one of trillions more in federal spending. He would have the government do more, the private sector less. He's eager to create a government-run health insurance program, open to all Americans, to compete with private insurers. He's bent on reducing what CEOs are paid.

The investor class--those with household incomes above Obama's arbitrary cutoff of $250,000 a year--will take a beating if he has his druthers. Low tax rates and large deductions created to increase investment and charitable donations will vanish. The tax bill of U.S. companies with profits abroad will rise, their ability to compete in the global economy will fall.