Let POTUS Be Clear

by Joshua H. Liberatore

Recall the tone of voice in which our parents instructed us on something of grave importance, a matter of domestic urgency: an ethical slip, flippant remark, or indecorous gesture. Recall the way that we often judged the seriousness of the message based on whether our middle name was invoked at the outset. Though his duties often require a kind of paternal authority and judicial self-possession, POTUS nevertheless has to be a touch more subtle in his scoldings from the podium. And while his style is still evolving in many ways, some definite patterns have already emerged. Quite simply, POTUS asks us to let him be clear.

Early moments of stern reminder were more timid, almost apologetic: a modest presidential request for reason to prevail in the land he rules.

But make no mistake: A failure to act, and act now, will turn crisis into a catastrophe and guarantee a longer recession, a less robust recovery, and a more uncertain future. Millions more jobs will be lost. More businesses will be shuttered. More dreams will be deferred. (February 4, 2009)

Gathering strength that literary allusion often provides, POTUS quietly became more imperious:

So let me be clear: Those ideas have been tested, and they have failed. They’ve taken us from surpluses to an annual deficit of over a trillion dollars, and they’ve brought our economy to a halt. And that’s precisely what the election we just had was all about. The American people have rendered their judgment. And now is the time to move forward, not back. Now is the time for action. (February 5, 2009)

Once the $787 billion stimulus package passed both houses of Congress, POTUS relaxed for spell, but shortly turned his attention to the next corner of concern, the twin stepchildren of our present discontent: the mortgage and credit crises.

And I also want to be clear that there will be a cost associated with this plan. But by making these investments in foreclosure prevention today, we will save ourselves the costs of foreclosure tomorrow, costs that are borne not just by families with troubled loans, but by their neighbors and communities and by our economy as a whole. Given the magnitude of these crises, it is a price well worth paying. (February 18, 2009)

When POTUS addressed the U.S. Conference of Mayors, he warned them, as the deputized allowance-dispensers of their respective cities, to spend the stimulus money wisely:

So I want to be clear about this: We cannot tolerate business as usual, not in Washington, not in our State capitals, not in America’s cities and towns. We will use the new tools that the recovery act gives us to watch the taxpayers’ money with more rigor and transparency than ever. If a Federal agency proposes a project that will waste that money, I will not hesitate to call them out on it and put a stop to it. (February 20, 2009)

And to the National Governors Association, whose members – with at least one well-publicized exception – stand poised to receive $140 billion in stimulus money, he also wanted to be clear:

So let me be clear, though: This is not a blank check. I know you’ve heard this repeatedly over the last few days, but I want to reiterate it. These funds are intended to go directly towards helping struggling Americans keep their health coverage. We want to make sure that that’s what’s happening, and we’re going to work with you closely to make sure that this money is spent the way it’s supposed to. (February 23, 2009)

Later, as if countering an old campaign criticism that he was an income redistributionist, a government interventionist, and perhaps an out-and-out socialist, POTUS grew sharp:

But let me be clear: The choice we face is not between some oppressive government-run economy or a chaotic and unforgiving capitalism. Rather, strong financial markets require clear rules of the road, not to hinder financial institutions, but to protect consumers and investors, and ultimately to keep those financial institutions strong; not to stifle, but to advance competition, growth, and prosperity. And not just to manage crises, but to prevent crises from happening in the first place, by restoring accountability, transparency, and trust in our financial markets. These must be the goals of a 21st century regulatory framework that we seek to create. (February 25, 2009)

At Camp Lejeune, NC, POTUS addressed troops in his first stage appearance as Commander in Chief. To the troops he expressed gratitude and admiration, offering the usual – required, if hollow – blandishments: they have performed “brilliantly”; their eventual withdrawal does not signify failure; the Pax Americana is healthy and strong, etc. To the Iraqis, he wanted to be clear:

So to the Iraqi people, let me be clear about America’s intentions. The United States pursues no claim on your territory or your resources. We respect your sovereignty and the tremendous sacrifices you have made for your country. We seek a full transition to Iraqi responsibility for the security of your country. And going forward, we can build a lasting relationship founded upon mutual interests and mutual respect as Iraq takes its rightful place in the community of nations. (February 27, 2009)

When he introduced his new budget, POTUS promised both to “rein in spending” and “root out waste, fraud, and inefficiency” in government contracting. But to allay keen worries at the Pentagon that the party might be over, POTUS made himself clear:

Now, I want to be clear, as Commander in Chief, I will do whatever it takes to defend the American people, which is why we’ve increased funding for the best military in the history of the world. We’ll make new investments in 21st century capabilities to meet new strategic challenges, and we will always give our men and women the – in uniform, the equipment and the support that they need to get the job done. (March 4, 2009)

That is what the Pentagon does, right? Defend? POTUS was clear. And to address “the crushing costs of health care” in tough economic times, POTUS hosted a bipartisan forum, one whose principal topics was . . . the clarity of his concern:

Well, let me be clear: The same soaring costs that are straining families’ budgets are sinking our businesses and eating up our Government’s budget too. Too many small businesses can’t insure their employees. Major American corporations are struggling to compete with their foreign counterparts, and companies of all sizes are shipping their jobs overseas or shutting their doors for good. Medical – Medicare costs are consuming our Federal budget; I don’t have to tell Members of Congress this. Medicaid is overwhelming our State budgets; I don’t need to tell Governors and State legislatures that. (March 5, 2009)

Then, to the joy of researchers and advocates on behalf of diseases like Parkinson’s and diabetes, POTUS lifted the ban on Federal monies directed toward human stem cell research. On this hot-button issue, he certainly needed to be clear:

But let’s be clear: Promoting science isn’t just about providing resources; it’s also about protecting free and open inquiry. It’s about letting scientists, like those who are here today, do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient – especially when it’s inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology. (March 9, 2009)

On education policy and reform – music to my ears on nearly all counts – POTUS was doubly clear:

Let me be clear: The overwhelming number of teachers are doing an outstanding job under difficult circumstances. My sister is a teacher, so I know how tough teaching can be. But let me be clear: If a teacher is given a chance or two chances or three chances but still does not improve, there’s no excuse for that person to continue teaching. I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences. The stakes are too high. We can afford nothing but the best when it comes to our children’s teachers and the schools where they teach. (March 10, 2009)

Finally, POTUS mildly scolded Congress – dominated by his own party, it must be mentioned – for sending him the belated and bloated omnibus spending bill necessary to keep the government’s “wheels turning” (as the pundits are fond of saying), a flawed bill he was all but obliged to sign, despite procedural reservations. POTUS was clear, however, that this bill represented the past, not the future he campaigned on and has promised since taking office:

Now, let me be clear: Done right, earmarks have given legislators the opportunity to direct Federal money to worthy projects that benefit people in their districts, and that’s why I have opposed their outright elimination. And I also find it ironic that some of those who rail most loudly against this bill because of earmarks actually inserted earmarks of their own and will tout them in their own States and their own districts. (March 11, 2009)

Why all this concern for clarity? One must merely recall the precedent set by the past eight years of desperate gropings at cogency to discover POTUS’s probable motivation. A brief recapitulation is instructive:

New Orleans has had a long tradition of diplomatic ties with Mexico. In 1824, New Orleans, Louisiana became the first site of the Mexican – where the first Mexican – became the site for the first Mexican consulate in the United States. Isn’t that interesting? (April 21, 2008)

Given that the results under his predecessor so often were neither clear nor interesting, can we blame POTUS for making the extra effort toward achieving at least the former, even at the expense of the latter?

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