Thursday, June 17, 2010

Language and the Presidency

I am, as you might imagine, glad to see a bunch of posts recognizing the limits of the presidency from Jonathan Chait, Jamelle Bouie (both of whom have written on this before) and T.R. Donoghue.  I especially thought that Bouie's comments were smart:
I’d also add that the optics of President Bush may have changed liberals’ perception of what the president can do. At every turn, we either heard that President Bush was doing “X” thing, or claiming “X” power, and without the context of a unified Republican Congress or a pliant executive branch, it was easy to believe that Bush was accomplishing these things through sheer force of will, when he simply wasn’t.
I think one of the issues here is just sloppiness of language, leading to sloppiness in thinking, and I'm hear to plead: Guilty! 

Earlier today, I said the following:
  • "if Barack Obama actually managed to capture and/or kill Osama bin Laden"
  • "By killing al-Qaeda leaders -- by possibly killing bin Laden -- Obama is..."
  • "if by some chance Obama curtails the drone strikes, or is in any way defeated by bin Laden"
Not good enough.  I was sort of aware I was doing it, but it's hard to make the language work.  I should have said: "if during the Obama presidency the United States actually managed."  I should have said, "if...the United States is in any way defeated by bin Laden."  I should have referred to Obama's policies, or even better policies Obama supported, rather than Obama himself killing al-Qaeda leaders. 

So, I'm going to recommit to trying to be careful about language and the presidency, just as I urge everyone to be careful about attributing to Obama only those things that he actually does.  I have to say, though -- it's hard.


  1. Come on, people have been using the name of the head of government to represent the entire government that person is responsible for for centuries. Millenia, I'd bet. I have no doubt someone could find a reference to William the Conqueror doing X that was actually done by one of his knights or household employees.

  2. Well, yes, but those weren't democracies, and they certainly weren't diffused-responsibility democracies. That's the problem; our language (and many of our concepts) are built for pre-1688 monarchies, and we get in trouble when we apply them to post-1787 America.

  3. Looking at the U.S., and her media, from the outside there has been a tendency to embody the country in the person of the president to a tendency no longer seen in Britain.
    It would sound very odd to our ears to hear "Tony Blair defeated the rebels in Sierra Leone".

  4. Most of Bush's 'optics' were in foreign policy, especially the Iraq war, and presidents really do have more latitude.

    It is a safe prediction that (unless Dems do amazingly well in the fall) Obama will be reborn next year as a foreign policy president, focusing on initiatives abroad, where he has a mostly free hand, rather than a domestic legislative agenda.

  5. It's not just Obama or Bush. This language feeds into the misperception (classically a liberal one, but in our era a conservative fallacy) that the President, and by extension the government, can do anything. On the positive side: Stop the oil leak, prevent hurricanes, end Islamic fascism. On the negative side: Pull off massive conspiracies or cause the rise of Islamic fascism through its foreign policy decisions. It's magical thinking.

  6. "I should have said, 'if...the United States is in any way defeated by bin Laden.'"

    Nitpicking, but wouldn't the same rationale apply to bin Laden here as well?

  7. Rhayader,

    See my comment above -- in an autocratic organization, it's a lot more legitimate to conflate the two.


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