Barack Obama and the Politics of Can’t

Terrence O. Moore

October 1, 2008

The most unsettling aspect of the Obama campaign is not a capitulatory foreign policy; not a plan for massive redistributions of wealth; and not even the apparent success it has had in suppressing revelations about and scrutiny of the more unsavory aspects of his character and associates. The most dangerous quality of his campaign is his use and abuse of language. Only through an adeptly sophistic use of language can he manage to sell a one-trillion-dollar transfer of wealth (quite likely only the first such transfer) as “a tax cut for 95% of all Americans.” Yet Obama’s use of language is not about one policy nor all of his policies combined. Neither is it a matter of mere academic concern. As Thucydides and Machiavelli and Orwell knew, and as every successful demagogue has found in practice, the manipulation of language is the real source of power in a true revolution, that is, in the attempt to change existing social, political, and moral norms. Through language people come to understand themselves. Through language human beings express their hopes and dreams. Through language we pursue the good and the beautiful. And through language we come to correct ourselves when we have made mistakes. When the skillful demagogue has come to take our language from us, however, when he has actually changed the meaning of words, we find it hard to articulate what bothers us about him and his agenda. We find it nearly impossible to call him to task. Once that level of manipulation has been achieved, the demagogue prevails not only in his own day but for decades to come, and historians even find themselves at his mercy.

In some ways Obama is doing nothing new. He comes from a long line of Democrat politicians who have pulled off similar sleights of hand and tongue. Obaman CHANGE draws upon the eternal springs of the “New Deal” and the “Great Society” that gave us misnomers like social security. The fear is, though, that Obama may surpass his predecessors precisely because he lives in a media age and is a media star. In the media age, actual words, still necessary, may not be as convincing as images. And Obama is the master of image. He is, frankly, cool. And America is thinking right about now that it could use a cool president. The only force capable of defeating him seems to be an equally cool, and much more genuine, vice presidential candidate, who is not just cool but loveable. But we still have to pay attention to the words that Obama uses to understand exactly what he intends to do with this country, or perhaps, to this country.

Pick almost any word from the Obama lexicon and you will find a betrayal of meaning and language: service, middle-class, community, organization, hope. Even change, his mantra, which he certainly would bring, does not constitute truth in advertising because the change with which he lures the American people is not the same change he has in mind. Americans don’t like radicals, and Obama is a radical. Even staunch abortionists find his actual record on abortion (the things he voted for rather than the things he said he voted for) extreme. Obama’s effectiveness cannot stem from his radicalism, therefore, but must derive from his ability to worm his way into the very American psyche that he has hated for most of his life and probably (does anyone know the real Obama?) still hates. To understand Obama’s success and his limits with the American people, let’s look at a seemingly innocuous word, yet ultimately the word that separates him most from what most Americans actually believe. That word is can.

Can is a subtheme to Obama’s campaign. Change took a back seat to can in the “Yes We Can” speech after Obama’s Oprah-aided victory in South Carolina. One of the Black Eyed Peas even wrote a song about the New Hampshire version of “Yes We Can.” Can, more than any other word I can think of, epitomizes the American spirit. Can is the child of the marriage between hope and resolve. Can opens up the world to the energetic and enterprising. Can can do. Can is human, to be sure, but it is also quintessentially American. Benjamin Franklin, the architect and embodiment of the American spirit of can, once wrote a pamphlet to the people of Europe telling them what sort of folks should “remove to America.” He was emphatic in saying that those who expect to come to America and not work hard are misled. Particularly gentlemen’s sons, used to a life of leisure and prestige, would not find things easy in the new country. America, wrote Franklin, is a place “where people do not inquire concerning a stranger, What is he? but, What can he do?” Franklin believed that individuals prove themselves not through titles or birth but through what they could and were willing to put their effort towards, through their capacity for can-do. The most obvious difference between Obama and the current Democrat party on the one hand and Franklin on the other, is that the former means precisely to define you according to what you are: by your race and, to a lesser extent, by your class, which they take as indelibly fixed. What can you do? What does that matter?

The lessons of the American can come to us in childhood. I remember being told about can countless times by my mother, who had been raised by two Depression-era parents from rural East Texas. My maternal grandfather, a mechanic, turned an auto parts shop into a modest fortune. He never went to college. My mother taught me about can by deploring its nemesis, can’t (rhymes with ain’t, for those of you North of Mason-Dixon). Whenever as a child I gave up, with the words “I can’t” as a sign of my surrender, my mother returned with, “Can’t never could.” Sometimes the enemy of success and hard work was even personified: “Ol’ Can’t? He never could.” She would usually add something about “elbow grease.” Americans even have a fable about the age-old battle between Can and Can’t, the Little Engine Who Could: “I think I can, I think I can.” Finally, with a lot of huffing and puffing, the Little Engine does.

These reflections would be nothing more than amusing anecdotes of childhood were not something very important at stake in this election. The thing Obama does not want you to know, the thing he can’t let you know lest you reject him outright, is that he is very subtly replacing the Politics of Can with the Politics of Can’t. The former sort of politics is the one that inspired our individual ambitions and made our country great. There is a real danger, on the other hand, that the latter sort would set about weakening individual ambition and tearing down our nation’s greatness. You see, the trick in “Yes We Can!” lies in who the “We” are. At first, “We” sounds like the American people. But the “We” in Obama’s formulation cannot possibly be the American people because if he believes that the American people can, it is hard to see why they need so much government help all the time. Obama’s “American people” are not the rugged individualists Franklin and Lincoln and Reagan had in mind. Look more closely at Obama’s “We” and you think you see the Democrat party. A sharper view takes you to the liberal wing of the party. Yet in truth, the “We” in “Yes We Can!” are really no more than a select group of politicians, activists, and bureaucrats who do not care very much for this country as it now stands but have big ideas about what it might become once they are in charge. And for this transformation to take place, Obama’s “We” (which is really they) need millions of willing accomplices, the seeming subjects of the “We’s” pity and patronage, the source of the “We’s” power, millions who agree on but one thing: that they, without the help of “We,” can’t. They can’t fend for themselves. They can’t think for themselves. They can’t even vote by themselves without the “We” driving them there and showing them how. They can’t be expected to pay taxes or bills on their own. They can’t go to college without the “We’s” help, which in monetary terms means your help. The real “We” sit atop the Obaman social pyramid, even above the “top 5 percent,” and the “American people” are the millions of drones needed to take the We, or really HIM, that high.

The Politics of Can’t preached by Obama is the abdication of personal responsibility, the surrender of the human spirit, and the transfer of all hope from one’s own inner resources (to say nothing of a forgiving God) to a cadre of cynical and sanctimonious politicians who have figured out how to prosper when people give up hope of doing for themselves. The Politics of Can’t is the chemistry of community organizing, and Obama’s virtuosity in it, in what Burke called “the petty war of village vexation,” has taken him to the verge of the White House. And the really frightening part about the whole scheme is that in order to pull it off, in order to answer the hopeless and mindless can’t, Obama has to bring in another seemingly innocuous word that he manipulates at will, the imperative must. Along with his favorite adjective redistributive, must cries out from his now famous 2001 radio interview. Since the people can’t for themselves, the government must. Everything follows from that principle: redistribution of wealth, abortion, opposition to real school choice, government health care; the list goes on. The must is not explained. The must is not to be questioned. But it clearly serves as a call to action. The must must get done by whatever means necessary. If must is achieved via the Supreme Court, great, though that way takes too long. If it is through elections, don’t forget, “We” also need the court to secure the victory.

The only way to beat Obama, then, is by serving his own words back to him. Strip them of their cover—carefully concealed and disguised as they are—by exposing their true meaning. This requires a special sort of political parsing and exposition of language. Senator McCain and Governor Palin have been doing an increasingly better job of that since Obama’s Joe the Plumber slip-up. It is time for Obama, now, to answer some questions about what he believes the American people can do for themselves and, indeed, what they ought to do for themselves. And it is time for McCain and Palin to begin reminding the American people of the long list of items Obama and, it seems, the Democrat Party believe they “can’t” do without the assistance of the government. It is difficult to imagine that such a list, when presented without the flowery assurances of demagogic promises, would not grate against the natural pride of every American heart. It is one thing if I say I can’t… it’s quite another when you tell me I can’t.

Again, the most horrifying portent of an Obama presidency is not that he might wreck the economy, invite attacks from abroad due to his inexperience and lack of faith in this great country, or even that he would appoint activist judges who will not leave the bench for a long, long time—though he would, most assuredly, do all of these things. The Founding Fathers built a nation that could, and that has, survived all these disasters. Instead, the most frightening prospect offered by this charismatic leader is that his pie-in-the sky promises and pandering politics will extinguish, in those who need it most, one of the most valuable qualities in man: the truly audacious hope in one’s own abilities to attain happiness through hard work in a land of liberty responsibly exercised. It is not implausible to imagine a young child, after years of an Obama administration, complaining to his mother that he “can’t.” He can’t do, he can’t learn, he can’t make something of himself. Will this mother respond, as my mother did, that “can’t never could,” or will she purr as she strokes that child’s head, “Don’t worry, child. You don’t have to. Barack and the government must do it for you.”? Ultimately, this is the question the real “we” must answer on November 4.

Terrence O. Moore is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center and an assistant professor of history at Hillsdale College.