The older I get, the more I am irked by the incessant use of “talking points.” It’s bad enough that we all know that “talking points” are prepared for every governmental figure who is the subject of an interview, but it’s even worse when the “talking points” are used so often that the canned nature of the supposedly spontaneous “interview” becomes obvious to even the dullest citizen. And it is even worse when the “talking points” use a phrase that is so devoid of meaning that they reflect an intent to obfuscate rather than enlighten.
So it was this morning, when NPR’s Morning Edition broadcast an “interview” with Melody Barnes, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, about tonight’s State of the Union speech. (The transcript of the interview is here.) The programmed nature of Barnes’ responses became clear immediately, when she used “financial house in order” twice during her answer to the very first question. At that point, I felt like I should be playing “talking points bingo” and taking a slug of beer every time she used the phrase during the interview. And in fact she used it at least two more times. Wasn’t she embarrassed to keep repeating the same thing over and over? I’m sure she is an intelligent, witty person, but the constant resort to the “talking points” made her sound like a robot. When I got home I checked, and sure enough Press Secretary Robert Gibbs used the same “fiscal house in order” comment in his briefing yesterday. I’d be willing to bet that the other Obama Administration officials being interviewed elsewhere in the media today used “getting our financial house in order” repeatedly in their responses to questions.
What does getting our “financial house in order” even mean? It sounds like a carefully focus group-tested phrase that every listener infuses with her or his own meaning. Some may think it means raising taxes, some may think it means cutting spending, and some may think it means “investing” through more government spending. It doesn’t have any true meaning — and that is probably the point. It’s a way of sounding like you are saying something without saying anything at all.
If President Obama uses the phrase “getting our financial house in order” during his State of the Union speech I will be disappointed — and I’ll probably say “bingo” and drink a beer. I’m sick of politicians who won’t tell us what they actually intend to do, and even sicker of politicians who play ridiculous word games to try to mask their true plans.
On Friday, President Obama released a statement about the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. It comes from the Office of the Press Secretary, and to put it mildly it is not one of the White House’s best efforts.
The three-paragraph statement begins by reminding everyone that President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, notes that the award has been “claimed by giants of history and courageous advocates who have sacrificed for freedom and justice,” and then modestly states that Liu Xiaobo is “far more deserving of this award” than the President was. The statement notes, in its last paragraph, that “Mr. Liu reminds us that human dignity also depends upon the advance of democracy, open society, and the rule of law” and that the “values he espouses are universal, his struggle is peaceful, and he should be released as soon as possible.”
I don’t for a minute believe that President Obama had anything to do with crafting this statement or even saw it before it was released. He is much too savvy a politician to write a statement that plays directly into a persistent theme of his opponents — namely, that the President is arrogant, egotistical, and mostly interested in himself. There was no need for the President to remind people that he won the Nobel Peace Prize last year; that context could be provided by the news media in case anyone has forgotten. Nor should the President unthinkingly be placing himself among purported “giants of history and courageous advocates who have sacrificed for freedom and justice.”
This is a situation where the President needs to rely on his staff. In this instance his staff clearly let him down, and he has sustained a self-inflicted wound as a result. I would guess that the statement was written by some junior speechwriter who thought, wrongly, that it would be a good idea to give a currently embattled President some props for winning the Nobel Peace Prize. But wasn’t this statement read by Robert Gibbs, the press secretary, or some other more senior White House aide? Or do they think the American people want a President who reminds them of his receipt of an award that many thought was awarded as a political statement rather than on merit, when he should, instead, be focusing exclusively on the specific activities of the courageous activist who has been awarded the Peace Prize this year for work that has nothing whatsoever to do with President Obama?
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has weighed in on President Obama’s State of the Union speech and, specifically, the President’s decision to directly criticize the Supreme Court for its recent campaign finance decision. In response to a question from a University of Alabama law student, the Chief described the scene as “very troubling.” He noted, correctly, that the President has every right to disagree with and criticize the decisions of a coordinate branch of government, but that President Obama’s remarks ran afoul of considerations of decorum and propriety. As I’ve posted before, I think the Chief Justice is right on that point. In effect, President Obama used the Justices, who can only sit and listen, as a prop to score a few political points with his supporters, without showing proper respect for the Court or its role in attending the State of the Union address. I predict that we’ve seen the last of Chief Justice Roberts — and perhaps any Supreme Court Justice — at a State of the Union speech.
When White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was asked about Roberts’ comments, Gibbs’ response was wholly political — and therefore basically confirmed that President Obama’s motivation for making his comments in the first place were political as well. Gibbs said: “What is troubling is that this decision opened the floodgates for corporations and special interests to pour money into elections – drowning out the voices of average Americans.” He added that “the President has long been committed to reducing the undue influence of special interests and their lobbyists over government. That is why he spoke out to condemn the decision and is working with Congress on a legislative response.” What purpose is served by such comments except to try to advance a political agenda at the expense of the respect accorded to the judicial branch of our government as a neutral arbiter of constitutional disputes?