Jacob Sullum

Here is a quick summary of President Obama's recent debate with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Chamber of Commerce: The Democrats' economic policies have failed.

Obama: Look out! Foreigners!

Obama's attempt to discredit his opponents by linking them to sinister outsiders reminds us that neither major party has a monopoly on xenophobia. To some extent, crying "foreigner" reflects the president's desperation in the face of the Democrats' looming midterm losses. But it is also part of a long-term rhetorical strategy that belies his image as a sophisticated cosmopolitan eager to promote international cooperation and restore America's reputation.

Back in January, during his State of the Union Address, Obama claimed Citizens United v. FEC, a decision in which the Supreme Court overturned restrictions on political speech by corporations, would allow "foreign entities" to "spend without limit in our elections." That was one of the comments that may have prompted Justice Samuel Alito, sitting in the audience, to shake his head and mouth the words "not true," since the ruling left undisturbed the 1966 ban on election-related spending by "foreign nationals."

In the same vein, Obama last week repeatedly insinuated that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is using "foreign money" to fund ads criticizing Democrats.

"Just this week," he said in a speech supporting the re-election of Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, "we learned that one of the largest groups paying for these ads regularly takes in money from foreign corporations. So groups that receive foreign money are spending huge sums to influence American elections, and they won't tell you where the money for their ads comes from. ... This is a threat to our democracy." He said much the same thing during a campaign stop in Chicago.

Obama was referring to a ThinkProgress blog post reporting that the Chamber of Commerce receives revenue from affiliates in other countries. But as The New York Times noted, so do many other American organizations that are active in domestic political debates, "from liberal ones like the AFL-CIO and the Sierra Club to conservative groups like the National Rifle Association."

All these groups are legally required to keep such funds segregated from money they use to pay for political advocacy. The White House admitted it had no evidence that the Chamber of Commerce, which says "foreign money" represents 0.05 percent of its $200 million budget, has broken this rule.

"The president was not suggesting any illegality," insisted White House Counsel Bob Bauer. In other words, when Obama said "one of the largest groups paying for these ads regularly takes in money from foreign sources," he was not implying any connection between the ads and the money. He was just stringing sounds together randomly.

In terms of logical force, he might as well have been. Even if the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (or, as ThinkProgress calls it, the "Foreign-Funded 'U.S.' Chamber of Commerce") were a wholly owned subsidiary of a giant international corporation, noting that fact would do nothing to refute the group's criticism of Democratic policies.

Deploying "foreign" as a term of opprobrium in the context of an ad hominem attack does not exactly burnish Obama's credentials for the Nobel Peace Prize, which he won last year after less than nine months in office based on nothing more than the hope that he would be a less ugly American than his predecessor. Nor does it suggest that Obama has drawn a moral lesson from his own experience with such baseless attacks. But it is of a piece with his frequent complaints that the First Amendment allows too much speech of the wrong sort.

"If we just stand by and allow the special interests to silence anybody who's got the guts to stand up to them," Obama said in his Maryland speech, "our country is going to be a very different place." What the "special interests" are actually doing is speaking, and the president regrets that they have the freedom to do so. Who wants to silence whom?


Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
 
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