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Morning Jay: Obama's Sophistry on the Budget Deficit

6:00 AM, Apr 27, 2011 • By JAY COST
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In Obama’s speech on the budget deficit earlier this month, the president went out of his way to praise the free market, but balanced it against the need for collective action sponsored by the government:           

From our first days as a nation, we have put our faith in free markets and free enterprise as the engine of America's wealth and prosperity. More than citizens of any other country, we are rugged individualists, a self-reliant people with a healthy skepticism of too much government.

But there has always been another thread running throughout our history - a belief that we are all connected; and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation. We believe, in the words of our first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, that through government, we should do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves. And so we've built a strong military to keep us secure, and public schools and universities to educate our citizens. We've laid down railroads and highways to facilitate travel and commerce. We've supported the work of scientists and researchers whose discoveries have saved lives, unleashed repeated technological revolutions, and led to countless new jobs and entire industries. Each of us has benefitted from these investments, and we are a more prosperous country as a result.

This turned out to be a classic rhetorical move from the president. Obama regularly praises some value that is expounded mostly by conservatives, then turns around to qualify or balance it with a point made by the left (or vice versa). This is designed to create the impression that he is in the political center, or better yet at the final stage of a dialectical process: conservatism the thesis, liberalism the antithesis, Obama the synthesis.

However, this rhetorical move is inevitably a non sequitur, and always promulgated for the same, political purpose. In the case of the deficit, and what to do about it, the president’s “faith” in the free market is completely abstract and is unrelated to the real world of political debate. Sure, he’s pro-free market in the sense that he prefers it to socialism or communism, but that has nothing to do with the contemporary political divide. Most everybody in the mainstream political discourse agrees that free markets – of some sort – are good. The country is not debating whether to become a communist country. Instead, it is debating how much the government should involve itself in the free market.

Obama knows this, of course, and his speech is intended to confuse the issue, to make it seem like his policy proposals are not as liberal as they actually are. He starts out at 30,000 feet, above the political fray, to explain and praise our shared American values, some emphasized by conservatives and others by liberals, then he quietly zooms down to the ground level to stake out a position on the left hand side of the divide, arguing speciously that this final spot is consistent with where he started out. His hope is that you will not notice the transition, and thus assume that his decidedly left wing position is in fact the one that synthesizes liberalism and conservatism.

This is why he is constantly attacking straw men and bemoaning false choices. This shift from abstract philosophy to liberal politics is his signature rhetorical maneuver, and it requires the assumption that the actual political divide is inherently confused, as well as the idea that everybody who doesn’t find his position acceptable (inevitably, they are all on the right) is either radical or acting in poor faith.

And so it is that the president who praises “rugged individualism” and proposes an unprecedented expansion in the role of government in American life turns out to be the same person! Juxtapose President Obama's soaring rhetoric about free markets with the following chart, which graphs historical levels of spending and taxation against the president's FY 2012 Budget.

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