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Obama Talks the Talk

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It's not exactly news that businesses in this country have been cutting jobs and pay for a couple of years in hopes of staying solvent. Now the Obama administration may follow suit. The president has proposed freezing the pay of federal employees for the next couple of years, which is just one of the cost-cutting steps his critics have been proposing for the last couple of years. It is part of Barack Obama's gift of gab that he can make it seem like his own idea.

The president indicated that the federal pay freeze might be only the beginning of his starting to sound like the opposition. "Going forward ..." he began, using the most superfluous and, alas, most ubiquitous phrase in polspeak. For what's the alternative -- going backward? Surely not even his most admiring followers think the wonder-working Mr. Obama can reverse time.

"Going forward," the president was saying, "we're going to have to make some additional very tough decisions that this town has put off for a very long time." This Town is polspeak for Washington, D.C., and is supposed to add an air of informal authority to whatever is being proposed at the time. Much as some movie gangster in the Thirties was always saying, "We run dis town."

Junior political consultants and minor lobbyists in Washington are much given to speaking of This Town, too, perhaps in hopes of lending their words some ersatz weight. A president should have no need for the phrase, but after the shellacking Mr. Obama took in the midterm elections, he may feel the need to at least sound in control.

Please note that the president didn't say he was the one who'd been putting off economizing for a very long time. No, it was This Town that had been putting it off. This, too, is a required conjugation in the rhetorical lingo known as polspeak. For when a president has taken some action he's proud of, the accepted form is first person: "I did" or "We did." But when he's put off doing those things he ought to have done, he uses the third person -- it's This Town that has put it off. If and when somebody puts out a Strunk and White for politicians, this construction should be high on the list of rules.

In the event of a major foul-up, presidents may shift to the passive voice. "Mistakes were made," to quote a Reaganism. That way individual responsibility is sidestepped or at least diluted even while said foul-up is duly acknowledged.

Polspeak has rules of syntax, grammar and general obfuscation all its own, but they bear a certain similarity to cliches in businessthink and, yes, editorial writing. The utterly safe editorial, the kind that never editorializes but only regurgitates the news story before adding a platitude at the end, must always include the phrase: "On the other hand" in order to sound, yes, fair-and-balanced.

Because polspeak deals with politics, the exercise of power, it's particularly dangerous and deceptive. And the aware reader will be on guard against its every convention, from its most annoying cliches ("Going forward ...") to the standard Clinton clause. The purpose of the latter, to borrow a line from Gilbert and Sullivan's classic political treatise, "The Mikado," is "to give a bald and unconvincing narrative an air of verisimilitude." Like the current story line about Barack Obama's being a great economizer.

No essay on polspeak would be complete without noting Rule No. 535, which mandates that, whenever cutting the federal budget is mentioned, the first response of those whose pay would be cut or frozen, or who might even have to be furloughed or let go, as in private industry, must be: "But this will affect only a minuscule portion of the federal budget!"

The same line is inevitably used by those trying to save earmarks, boondoggles and wasteful projects in general. Those we favor are essential, the others expendable, It is part of the genius of selective language that it can skip airily over economic reality -- for example, that almost any restraint on the gigantic spending machine that is the federal budget might affect only a small sliver of it. But only by beginning somewhere can the whole out-of-control monster be contained.

It may be too much to hope that the federal budget can actually be reduced, despite the occasional recommendations of well-meaning commissions like Bowles-Simpson, which tend to appear sporadically, then disappear into the mists of history with the now forgotten Hoover Commission.

But even to point out this political reality would be impolite (and impolitic) by all the rules of polspeak, which are designed not to clarify but to obscure.

Recommended reading: George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language." Politics long ago won that match, as the latest round of polspeak out of the White House testifies. Let's hope for more clarity going forward.

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