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The Rhetorical President

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

The use of language to persuade is a skill much admired since ancient times. Few people become leaders without the ability to move others to agree with their arguments. Rightly understood, rhetoric is only one of the tools of persuasion; the other two, logic and dialectic, are required to truly change peoples’ minds. During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama awed the media and voters alike with his rhetorical skills. He continues to awe as he uses rhetorical manipulation to sell the stimulus package to the American public.

Legitimate rhetoric balances the skills of public speaking with sound logic and appeals to commonality with the audience on the issue at hand. It is an understatement to say that Barack Obama is skilled at using the language of his opponents to sell his ideas. During the 2009 campaign, he convinced a significant number of evangelicals that he was one of them. He convinced people of polar opposite points of view that he was on their side. Now, as the nation’s top snake oil salesman, he is “working the room” to sell his stimulus package — a package that experts agree will stimulate the Democratic constituency groups more than the economy.

The “snake oil” is especially obvious in his slick salesmanship as well as his shrewd manipulation of rhetoric.

Starting on Capitol Hill, he brought Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania), the most gullible of the GOP senators, into the Oval Office to overwhelm them with his dialectic; he shrewdly played on his commonality with them on specific ideas and people they mutually admired. One at a time, he worked his charm by stroking each one at their vulnerable points, and all three caved. They undermined their party’s hope for leverage, stomped on the principle of checks and balances, and ended the need for any future attempts for genuine bipartisanship. They also gave Obama the cover he needed during his first major political crisis and gave momentum to a massive trillion dollar plan that could burden the nation for the foreseeable future!

Emboldened by his success with the Three Stooges of Capitol Hill, the president shrewdly staged his first prime-time presidential news conference using all the gravitas of the White House East Room as a backdrop. I say “shrewdly” because the president rearranged seating of the White House Press Corp to give deference to the left. The major network stars were seated behind Ed Schulz, a liberal radio talk show host (Note that this administration plans to push the “Fairness Doctrine”), and reporters from the black media outlets. He shrewdly gave international exposure to media most friendly to his administration. Al Jazeera, Essence, and the Saudi Press Agency were given seats. Sam Stein, a leftist blogger from the Huffington Post, was recognized for a question, thus getting international exposure. No wonder there were no follow-up questions or challenges to the president’s remarks. The mainstream media, whose worshipful coverage assured him the White House, couldn’t have liked the new arrangement, but apparently decided that the slight didn’t warrant legitimate grilling of the president during his first press conference.

Mr. Obama was also shrewd in his use of rhetorical devices that many consider demagogic and are, at a minimum, deceptive and misleading. For instance, he frequently used generalization and polarization:

• The stimulus bill would mean the difference between catastrophe and creating four million jobs

• Liberal Democrats just want to spend more money, but the GOP vetoes all progress

• Everything was the fault of the Bush administration, so Obama’s administration is facing “unprecedented” problems

• Everything the new administration is doing has never been done before

• Republican leaders are doing “nothing,” while his team is producing plans that will perform miracles

He conveyed a distortion of what the ancient rhetoricians called “ethos.” The ancient concept includes the image that is conveyed by the person trying to persuade. Obama almost never smiles, and during the press conference he projected, as usual, the image of self-control, maturity and deliberation. His suits are always impeccable, and his informal wear is “cool.” His demeanor projects a seriousness that is softened by his picture perfect family life. During the press conference, he seemed utterly sincere, honest and candid, while dishing out statements that could be thoroughly discounted by any first-year reporter pounding a beat. He skillfully turned to humor in order to disdain and dismiss the only penetrating question of the whole press conference. When Major Garrett of Fox News asked the president about Vice President Joe Biden’s comment regarding the administration having a 30 percent chance of failing on any given initiative, the president did not hesitate to make Biden the butt of his joke. The end result was to convey the impression that he is the savior of the nation, while everyone else, including his party and his vice president, stands as a barrier to progress.

For a man who promised bipartisanship by “working with the majority for change,” he makes ample use of what he claimed to despise, “the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for too long have strangled our politics.”

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