I’d hardly gotten through lamenting the fact that Obama is a champion blamer of others—no “The Buck Stops Here” sign on his desk—when what do you know, right on cue, he comes out with “I’ll take responsibility. I’m the President.”
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Until you stop and think about it for a moment—which he’s counting on most Americans to fail to do.
Let’s take a closer look at what Obama said concerning the AIG bonuses:
“Washington is all in a tizzy and everybody is pointing fingers at each other and saying it’s their fault, the Democrats’ fault, the Republicans’ fault,” [Obama] said at a town hall meeting Wednesday. “Listen, I’ll take responsibility. I’m the President.”
He also makes clear that it isn’t really his fault. “We didn’t grant these contracts,” he said.
But he added: “So for everybody in Washington who’s busy scrambling, trying to figure out how to blame somebody else, just go ahead and talk to me, because it’s my job to make sure that we fix these messes, even if I don’t make them.”
Note that nowhere does he admit any wrongdoing or culpability. The clues are in the little details of language; do not think for a moment that they are accidental. Obama’s ability to craft his balancing act is so precise that it has me in awe. Almost every word he utters is there for a careful strategic reason, to induce a particular psychological effect in the listener.
First we have “Washington is all in a tizzy.” That is a favorite ploy of Obama’s—to ridicule and trivialize criticism (last April, for example, I wrote about his tendency to use the word “silly” to describe his opposition).
Note also it is Washington that’s in this tizzy of blame, not the American people. That’s because Obama knows that “Washington” isn’t very popular right now (or perhaps ever), so it makes a good target. And Obama, of course, isn’t “Washington,” although he happens to reside there.
He doesn’t even consider the possibility that anyone in “Washington” (except, of course, for Obama, who’s not really “in” Washington) might be sincerely trying to discover who is actually responsible for the problem. No, they are merely eager to deflect the responsibility onto others. The fact that this is actually a pretty good description of the motivation of so many members of Congress only adds to Obama’s believability, so one might be pardoned for forgetting that Obama has been doing the very same thing—pointing the finger at others and saying it’s their fault, not his—ever since he came to office.
Next we have the phrase “saying it’s their fault, the Democrats’ fault, the Republicans’ fault…” Notice what Obama leaves out here—the phrase “saying it’s my fault,” or even the more distant third-person “saying it’s the President’s fault.” He refuses to add those words because he doesn’t even want to admit it as a possibility. He doesn’t want to leave that image in people’s minds even for a moment.
Then Obama says, “I’ll take responsibility.” Not “I am responsible.” Just that he’ll “take” responsibility. He’ll wrap the mantle of responsibility around his shoulders whether it fits or not. That’s just how noble he is. And not because he’s done anything wrong, of course. It’s because presidents are supposed to be big boys and do that sort of thing.
Obama drives this thought home by immediately adding “I’m the President.” He wants to remind us of the dignity of his office, and the fact that he holds it and wields power right now.
But Obama saves the best for last. It’s astounding how he manages to pack so much into one sentence. He repeats his earlier ridicule of Washington for emphasis: “everybody in Washington who’s busy scrambling, trying to figure out how to blame somebody else.” Once again we have an image of a pack of clowns or Keystone cops, a comedy routine of fools, refusing to take the responsibility that is rightly theirs and saying “he did it; she did it; not me!”
Everyone, that is, but the righteous Obama. In contrast he says, “just go ahead and talk to me, because it’s my job to make sure that we fix these messes, even if I don’t make them.” So once again we have the contrast of the silly Washington blamers (whom he is blaming for being blamers), followed immediately by a reminder of his high office (“it’s my job to fix”) and then the kicker, a disclaimer of wrongdoing: “even if I don’t make them.” That last is slipped in so smoothly that the audience might easily miss the fact that he just negated the responsibility he had claimed to be taking only a moment before.
But in actuality he is just appearing to negate that responsibility that he claimed to be taking a moment earlier. I know that’s a bit complex and convoluted (Obama is nothing if not complex and convoluted), but please bear with me. The tipoff is his use of the word “if.” He is careful not to say whether he made this mess or didn’t, or whether he had any role in its genesis at all. He is saying that, whether he did or did not make this mess (and who knows which it might be?), he is going to take responsibility for it anyway—a responsibility which he has just subtly deflected.
I wrote this analysis without having seen a video of his remarks. But when I watched them just now, the visuals made even clearer what he was doing.
The remarks in question begin at minute 4:46:
Note his gestures and affect. When he says the bits about “tizzy” and “scrambling” the intent to mock is obvious; he waves his arms in a flapping motion both times. Then, when he is making the contrasting remarks that follow, about his own position of power and gravitas as the President, his aspect grows more serious and responsible, and he underscores the effect by placing his hand solemnly on his chest each time, just in case we missed it, indicating: “I am the President. Me. Me.”
[NOTE: Lest you think any of this "now I say it now I don't" language was an accident, Obama uttered similar although not identical double talk while answering press questions prior to the Town Hall meeting. When asked whether he wished he'd learned about the AIG bonuses sooner so he could have done something about them, he dodges the question and instead says:
Well, look, rather than going into sort of the details of finding it out, ultimately I'm responsible, I'm the President of the United States. We've got a big mess that we're having to clean up. Nobody here drafted those contracts. Nobody here was responsible for supervising AIG and allowing themselves to put the economy at risk by some of the outrageous behavior that they were engaged in. We are responsible, though. The buck stops with me. And my goal is to make sure that we never put ourselves in this kind of position again.
See also my April 2008 dissection of Obama's non-apologetic apologies.]