The Dilemma-ridden Barack Obama Presidency

–Richard E. Vatz

“The administration has concluded that it cannot put [Khalid Sheik] Mohammed on trial in federal court because of the opposition of lawmakers in Congress and in New York. There is also little internal support for resurrecting a military prosecution at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The latter option would alienate liberal supporters.” The Washington Post, Nov. 13, 2010

The above story is one of President Barack Obama’s representative dilemmas, dilemmas which represent the ever-tightening Gordian Knot of his presidency.

For President Obama, approaching the 2nd year of his presidency, there was no final disposition on his passed Health Care Reform Bill; his unemployment-rich economic recovery; his continued war on terror; the prospect of nuclear-armed and recalcitrant Iran; or the war effort in Afghanistan.

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But he faces Morton’s Fork dilemmas: he likely cannot succeed with a liberal base when only conservative policies, which will alienate that base, are doable and/or offer reasonable prospects of success.

All along the president has had a likeable personality and the rhetoric of bi-partisanship with comity and comedy, while his politics, despite the rhetoric of bipartisanship, has been “we’ll go it alone if we do not have your support.”

I have argued for over 35 years that rhetoric is the struggle for salience or agenda and interpretation or spin. In that perspective the Obama Administration spent its first year emphasizing the need for health care reform in large part, the President said, due to over 40 million Americans being without it. This was in the first year of the Obama presidency its pre-eminent priority.

The interpretation was that such reform would make us healthy, wealthy and wise.

Critique after critique after critique in conservative circles articulated why no such reform would be economically advantageous; no matter, it was passed. Critique after critique after critique argued that the overwhelming complexity of the bill, 2409 or 1990 pages, according to your preferred font, made impossible an informed nation-wide discussion or analysis of its value and/or validity.

My own health-relevant expertise is in psychiatric rhetoric, and the health care reform bill ushers in “parity,” which means, unknown to many legislators who nominally acquainted themselves with the bill, that all visits to psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers will be covered without limit. This includes marital counseling and discussions of the “worried well,” as well as any problem in living that acquires a diagnosis, which any problem can.

All of this non-transparency, which has been exacerbated by new elements of the health care bill being revealed in post-passage discussion, should not be surprising following Speaker of the House, soon to be ex-Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi’s revealing gaffe to the effect that we have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it.

Republicans are going to make, they say, a major effort to overturn the bill. President Obama’s dilemma is evident here: he can politically stop such an effort, excite his restless liberal supporters and renege on his promise of bipartisanship, or he can compromise, angering his liberal base, leaving people like columnist Eugene Robinson asking in his recent column, “Why don’t they fight back?”

The economic recovery is, as we all know, not much of one, with unemployment seeming to be the hallmark of its stability. President Obama’s base asks, angrily and accusatorily as Robinson hints, “Are you going to cave in on tax cuts for the rich?”

A fascinating question. Republicans claim that raising taxes on those making over $250,000 will cripple much of small business, making the creation of jobs more difficult for small businesses and losing the trust of larger businesses which in turn leads to their not investing in more employment. Conservative historian Victor Davis Hanson writes, “Apparently, the president is unaware that after some 2,500 years of both experience with and abstract thought about Western national economies, we know that a free, private sector increases the general wealth of a nation, while a statist redistributive state results in a general impoverishment of the population.”

President Obama has another dilemma here: anger his base by admitting that his economic paradigm is invalid or push and fail on his tax reform, further crippling the economy. Current word is that he will argue to delay, but not permanently, taxing more those who make over $250,000.

President Obama finds a not-so-different dilemma in foreign policy. First, Afghanistan, wherein his supporters demand an exit strategy, while Gen. Petraeus and others in his military argue that to win, an exit strategy is anathema.

What to do? The good general, and about the only consensus within or without the Obama Administration is that Petraeus is a good and wise general, says that announcing an exit strategy in Afghanistan independent of conditions on the ground allows indigenous Taliban and Al-Qaeda to simply wait us out with low level opposition until we leave.

President Obama, as with everything but his health care reform bill, is in a holding pattern, trying to rhetorically reconcile a policy of a clear and allegedly indispensable exit strategy –with which he loses support from Gen. Petraeus — with an absence of an exit strategy, a policy decision which would cost him his Democratic base.

How to solve this dilemma?

He claims now that an exit strategy – “I’m not doing 10 years,” he was quoted by Bob Woodward to his generals — is not without delaying options should reality on the ground dictate it.

How about Iran’s putative acquisition of nuclear weapons? There’s a problem so difficult it makes the other dilemmas look easy. O.K. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have said that Iran will not become a nuclear power but on occasion have been less definitive and have hedged.

If Iran ultimately takes some U.S. initiated geopolitical bribe, we can assume that if it doesn’t break the bank, all will be well in the proliferation sweepstakes until Syria gets a nuclear weapon in the Mideast. (Anyone remember Tom Lehrer’s nuclear proliferation ditty?)

But what if Iran is on the precipice of producing nuclear weapons and it is too late to stop them and/or too difficult and/or too late to destroy their nuclear program or to aid Israel in destroying it?

If the United States acts, President Obama’s relations with the Islamic world may be irretrievably destroyed. If he acts but fails to stop the program, there is nothing gained and much will be lost militarily, diplomatically and economically. If he doesn’t act and Iran becomes the sole admitted nuclear power in the Mideast, the politics of the region will be transformed and even nuclear conflict will be eminently possible, as Israel views itself under an existential threat. Whence comes President Obama’s support in that case?

Finally, throughout all of these issues, Presidential ethos, one of the focuses, very parenthetically, of my doctoral dissertation, will have taken a major blow. Some of us thought that President Obama could never lose his rhetorical charm, and he may yet retain it, but if his recent appearances on Jon Stewart and even his press conferences are any indication, he seems to face yet further dilemmas. If the president is the “Hail Fellow Well Met” president, he risks his ability to mystify his audiences. He continues to appear at lightweight venues like “The View” and “The Jon Stewart Show,” indicating that the president finds this style rhetorically enhancing.
But what if he underestimates the rhetorical threat of such appearances? What if he underestimates the shows’ willingness – willingnesses? – to accommodate and play off his good-nature-in-the-face-of-bad-news persona? The View may never cause him a problem, but on Jon Stewart’s show the president was asked about his “Yes we can” mantra. Regarding the status of retrenchment of some of his economic goals, President Obama was asked whether he would still say “Yes we can,” and he confidently answered that he still believed in “Yes, we can,” “but it’s not going to happen immediately.”

His once-indulgent and compliant audience roared with derision. When asked by Stewart about outgoing economic adviser Larry Summers and the persistent problems in the economy, the president said unbelievably enough, “In fairness, Larry Summers did a heck of a job,” reminding viewers of W’s infelicitous phrasing following FEMA’s Michael Brown’ inarguable Katrina failures.

So, the president inadvertently parroted President George W Bush’s devastating line and then implied that he was making a joke, which he wasn’t.

The coup de grâce occurred when Jon Stewart chastened the president, saying, “You do not want to use that phrase, dude.” Dude? If the president goes to low-brow venues, he may lose the hierarchical standing traditionally accorded a president.

Yet another dilemma.

Domestic policy, foreign policy, presidential rhetoric style…the president finds himself on the horns of a multitude of dilemmas, and, as is usually the case with such Morton’s Fork dilemmas, the outcome – rhetorical and policy-wise – will not likely be favorable.

Professor Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University

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