Credibility and President Barack Obama

–Richard E. Vatz

It is widely agreed in my field of rhetoric and communication that few qualities of political speakers are more important than their credibility, but as common an evaluational criterion as credibility is, it is used almost interchangeably in two senses: 1. whether one should be believed or 2. whether one is believed.

Even before the reaction to South Carolina’s Rep. Joe Wilson’s sending the rhetorical shot heard round the world, “You lie!,” critics, including yours truly, were asking whether President Obama was playing fast and loose with some of his representations of facts.

Eight months into his presidency, a president I personally have liked, but whose words ring less and less true, has lost a not insubstantial, but not overwhelming, percentage of credibility of the second order, “whether one is believed.” On credibility of the first order, “whether one should be believed,” his insufficient criterion of accuracy seems limited only by whether his representations are grossly inaccurate or demonstrably deceptive.

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The consensus (second order)regarding presidential lack of credibility has generally followed the fact that they should not be believed: Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton are good examples.

Repeatedly critics have wondered how President Obama can say that health care reform will be revenue neutral. In one of his best columns, Charles Krauthammer unmasks that deception word by word. He also exposes the deceptiveness in other Obama claims that have not gone unnoticed by skeptics, including his (Obama’s) reassurance regarding illegal immigrants’ not being covered and the rhetorically false refuge of eliminating “hundreds of billions of dollars in waste and fraud,” applied in this case to Medicare.

Such a clever persuader is often described by average people not as a “liar,” but as “calculating and deceptive,” even when their style of presentation is articulate, even when they’re easygoing, and even when they’re generally non-confrontational.

Did those who voted for presidential candidate Barack Obama think that people would be saying after eight months, “He’s brilliant, easy on the eyes and ears, but you had better watch your wallet?”

Watch these doubts about President Obama’s truthfulness metastasize, even where irrelevant to fiscal policy, regarding nuclear policy and the defense of Western Europe, the enlargement of big government and nuclear-acquisitive Iran.

President Obama should no longer be given the presumption of truth (credibility, first order), and more and more he will not be (credibility, second order).

Young, impressive, mystifying, charismatic Barack Obama: we hardly knew ye.

Professor Vatz teaches rhetoric and communication at Towson University

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