President Barack Obama’s Disingenuous Expropriation of “Responsibility”

–Richard E. Vatz

Expropriation of a political opponent’s issues and primary values is both a time-honored and time-dishonored practice. It is a method of weakening one’s opponents’ constituency by taking away their causes célèbres and claiming them as one’s own. Thus, in Maryland, we have seen serial attempts and some putative successes at such expropriation by Mayor and then Governor Martin O’Malley regarding such issues as electric rate increases and slots, issues that correctly attributed would benefit Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich and Republicans. In cases such as these and others, expropriating politicians fool the public into thinking that the issue or value in question has been historically sponsored by them, when in reality it was his or her opponent or opponent’s party that was the leader on the position favored by the public.

The most egregious example of that currently is President Barack Obama’s implicitly claiming to be the president personifying “responsibility.” The Washington Post’s White House Correspondent Michael D. Shear [“Obama on Responsibility,” The WASHINGTON POST, March 8, 2009] wrote that “Six weeks into his presidency, the word that seems to matter most to Obama is ‘responsibility.’ The president has rarely offered a speech, introduced a new top adviser, or explained a policy proposal without invoking the words ‘responsible’ or ‘responsibility.’” Shear quotes columnist Peter Ferrara as claiming that President Obama uses the words “responsible” and “responsibility” to “distract us from his ideology.” That is precisely correct, but it is only part of the story.

“Responsibility” is a conservative god-term, and in honest usage it must reflect the actual, verifiable meeting of obligations. Over and over again, the value of responsibility comes up in conservative writings and conversations criticizing: the welfare state, the criminal justice system (anti-insanity plea, opposition to judicial sentence reductions, “coddling” of criminals), the behavior of politicians, nation-states and more, much more. Responsibility is some ways the “raison d’être of conservatism. [“Each player must accept the cards that life deals him or her. But once in hand one must decide how to play the cards in order to win the game.”- Voltaire; look at writings supporting personal responsibility by Richard Weaver, William F. Buckley, passim]

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In my own publications in my field of rhetorical theory I have emphasized the importance of responsibility in critiquing politicians’ rhetoric (see “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation” and “The Mythical Status of Situational Rhetoric: Implications for Rhetorical Critics’ Relevance in the Public Arena,” [THE REVIEW OF COMMUNICATION, Vol. 9, No. 1, January 2009, pp. 1-5]

President Obama uses “responsibility” often with no referent. This is a sign of associating with an expropriated god-term but not sincerely believing its implications. In the President’s case it is ironically supporting “responsibility” while abjuring responsibility for its support. When a president tries to shield upwards of 50% of the population from paying income taxes by requiring others to pay a near-confiscatory rate, and then he tries to get Americans who have acquired responsible mortgage obligations to subsidize those with irresponsibly-obtained mortgage obligations, the false mantra and prolific labeling of “responsibility” become a ploy of cynical rhetorical disinformation.

Is President Obama intentionally deceiving the American People? I don’t know. He consistently refers to the economic situation as one he “inherited.” So far, he takes no responsibility for the economic upheaval that has taken place pursuant to his assuming the presidency. To consistently reiterate and emphasize publicly, say in his inaugural and elsewhere, that a problem is the fault of his predecessor – and one predecessor at that – is to avoid, not assume, responsibility.

Richard E. Vatz is professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson University

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