Presidential Numeracy

by Joshua H. Liberatore

Remember when POTUS accused Al Gore of using “fuzzy math” as he made his debut on the national stage in the 2000 debates? To think what just eight years have taught him. At the time, Gore’s scowls in response to this attack earned him no praise from undecided voters, nor did they conceal a sitting VPOTUS’s insider’s knowledge of a cherished White House device. While Bill Clinton’s most famous evasions involved fuzzy forms of the verb ‘to be,’ surely the aspirant Gore had picked up something of the general art of fuzziness to which a straight-talking Texas governor was simply not privy. Let’s see what POTUS has learned since then.

In his remarks at the Associated Builders and Contractors National Legislative Conference on June 8, 2005, POTUS used an especially broad brush in describing our energy reserves:

It makes sense to explore ways to make sure that we can use corn or soybeans to diversify away from oil that come from a foreign country. We’re spending money on clean coal technology. Do you realize we’ve got 250 million years [250 years] * of coal? But coal has got environmental hazards to it, but there’s – I’m convinced, and I know that we – technology can be developed so we can have zero-emissions coal-fired electricity plants.

(If you’re wondering about the box note there, perhaps you guessed it: We at the Federal Register gently correct these sorts of exaggerations for the archival record, while leaving the original figure intact for fidelity’s sake. Left unannotated, who knows what posterity might make of our leaders’ bizarre predictions for a rosy future?)

Fuzzy math aside, the literary device POTUS is employing here is known as hyperbole, but its rhetorical opposite, called litotes, can also prove effective in certain contexts. In a familiar trope, POTUS illustrated the necessity to maintain a long view when it comes to spreading the blessings of liberty to foreign lands, here to an audience in Lancaster, PA:

But the struggle is just as intense today as it was in the ’40s and the ’50s. I must have told this story hundreds of times, that one of the most amazing aspects of my presidency was my relationship with the Prime Minister of Japan, Prime Minister Koizumi. What’s amazing about it is that when my dad was 18, he signed up to fight the Japanese; they were the sworn enemy of the United States of America. Thousands of people died in that conflict. (October 3, 2007)

Only thousands? Another more recent example of dramatic understatement concerned the promise of American citizenship, at a naturalization ceremony at Monticello in Charlottesville, VA:

Throughout our history, the words of the Declaration have inspired immigrants from around the world to set sail to our shores. These immigrants have helped transform 13 small colonies into a great and growing nation of more than 300 [300 million]* people. They’ve made America a melting pot of cultures from all across the world. They’ve made diversity one of the great strengths of our democracy. And all of us here today are here to honor and pay tribute to that great notion of America. (July 4, 2008)

But sometimes, when neither exaggeration nor understatement fits the bill, it suits POTUS just to aim for a comfortably vague range. At a recent summit on international development held on October 21, 2008, POTUS measured American generosity thus:

Through our Africa Education Initiative, as the President mentioned, the United States has trained more than 700,000 teachers. I think you said a million teachers? Yes, I’ll go for a million then. (Laughter and applause.) Somewhere between 700,000 and a million. (Laughter.) Distributed more than 10 million textbooks – somewhere between 10 million and 15 million – and provided hundreds of thousands of scholarships to help girls go to school.

Some fairly large spreads, you say? Well, when all other techniques miss the mark, POTUS might just dismiss the value of calculation altogether. During a lecture at the National Defense University, POTUS brought mathematical comfort to an audience of defense specialists (October 23, 2007):

Today, we have no way to defend Europe against the emerging Iranian threat, so we must deploy a missile defense system there that can. This system will be limited in scope. It is not designed to defend against an attack from Russia. The missile defenses we can employ would be easily overwhelmed by Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Russia has hundreds of missiles and thousands of warheads. We’re planning to deploy 10 interceptors in Europe. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to do the math. (Laughter.)

Got that? So, if you’re wondering what POTUS and POTUS-elect discussed in their official transition meeting at the White House this past Monday, don’t neglect the likelihood that the shadowy arts of presidential numeracy made it onto the agenda. A mere community organizer just couldn’t be expected to grasp them intuitively.

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