First lady’s speech ‘brilliantly cynical’

September 8, 2012


— Given the state of the economy, by any historical standard, Barack Obama should be 15 points behind Mitt Romney. Why is he tied? The empathy gap. On “caring about average people,” Obama wins by 22 points. Maintaining that gap was a principal goal of the Democratic convention. It’s the party’s only hope of winning in November.

George H.W. Bush, Romney-like in aloofness, was once famously handed a staff cue card that read: “Message: I care.” That was supposed to be speech guidance. Bush read the card. Out loud.

Not surprisingly, he lost to Bill Clinton, a man who lives to care, who feels your pain better than you do — or at least makes you think so. In politics, that’s a trivial distinction.

On Wednesday night, Clinton vouched for Obama as a man “who’s cool on the outside but who burns for America on the inside.” Nice phrase, but not terribly persuasive. The real job of Clintonizing Obama was left to Mrs. Obama. As she told it in the convention’s most brilliantly cynical speech, her husband is not just profoundly compassionate but near-Gandhiesque in feelings.

Others spoke about what Obama had done. Michelle’s job was to provide the why: because he cares. Her talk was a syllogism: Barack loves his wife, he loves his children, he loves his family — therefore, he loves you.

I have no doubt about the first three propositions, but the fourth is a complete non sequitur. We were assured, nonetheless, that the president is a saintly man, dispensing succor — health care (with free contraceptives), auto bailouts, fairness lawsuits — to his people. The flood of tears in the hall testified to the power of this spousal paean. Its brilliance lay in Michelle’s success in draining from Obama any hint of ideological or personal motivation.

The problem with swallowing the “he cares, therefore he does” line is that it so plainly contradicts what we’ve seen over the last four years. Barack Obama is a deeply committed social-democrat who laid out an unashamedly left-liberal agenda at the very beginning of his presidency and then proceeded to try to enact it.

Obama passed Obamacare, regulated Wall Street, subsidized Solyndra because that fits an ambitious left-wing agenda developed in his youth, now made possible by his power: redistributionist, government-centered, disdainful of success, suspicious of private enterprise, committed to his own vision of social justice.

Also missing from her speech was any hint of his outsized self-regard and personal ambition. Is he pursuing re-election because he cares? Or because it’s the ultimate vindication of the self-created man who came from nowhere to seize the prize? And whom defeat would turn into a historical parenthesis?

In 2008, Obama tellingly said that Ronald Reagan was historically consequential in a way that Bill Clinton was not. Obama clearly sees himself as the anti-Reagan, the man who reverses the 30-year conservative trajectory that Reagan launched (hence his consequentiality), and returns America to the 50-year liberal ascendancy that FDR began and Reagan terminated.

This makes you world-historical. This is what drives the man who kept inserting the phrase “New Foundation” in the major speeches he gave in the early months of his presidency. The slogan was meant to make him the rightful heir to the authors of the “New Deal” and “New Frontier.”

The phrase never took. But the ambition was unmistakable.

All this does not make Obama either bad or unique among presidents. But it does give lie to the lachrymose portrayal of him as the good family man writ large, presiding kindly over his flock.

His pledge in 2008 of “fundamentally transforming the United States of America” speaks to the largeness of both his ideology and his self-regard. That’s the far more plausible explanation of his drive to win, characterized by a ruthless single-mindedness that undid the Clintons in 2008 (and at times unhinged Bill) and that has so relentlessly demonized Romney in 2012.

The millions of dollars devoted to that demonization account for some of that 22-point “empathy gap.” Michelle’s soap-opera depiction of her husband as a man so infused with goodness that it spills over onto his grateful subjects was meant to maintain the other part of that gap.

I didn’t buy a word of it, but as a speech, Michelle’s was very effective. After all, what else do you say when you’re running for re-election in a land — as described so chillingly the next night by Elizabeth Warren — wracked with misery and despair?

— Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


jafs 5 years ago

Obviously Obama, like all politicians, is a mixed bag.

But, many of his policies do seem to me that they're driven by caring and trying to do the right thing.

Is he also interested in power and his legacy as a leader? Almost certainly, as all Presidents have been.

Paul R Getto 5 years ago

This piece is like watching paint dry.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years ago

Yea, and it's an unholy mixture of oil-based and latex that's guaranteed never to dry beyond a sticky muck.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years ago

"Given the state of the economy, by any historical standard, Barack Obama should be 15 points behind Mitt Romney."

It's pretty simple, really. A large number of voters know that the collapse of the economy is a result of the failed policies of President Bush, and that the slow recovery is because of the severity of that collapse and the preference of Republicans to hinder that recovery as much as they can because they think it'll help their electoral outcomes. And what does Romney have to offer? More of the same policies that created the economic collapse in the first place.

jesse499 5 years ago

Amazing how it's been 3.5 years and it's still someone elses fault! Just when is B.O going to do something that's his fault good are bad sounds like he's not doing anything at all. Oh I forgot!

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years ago

Yes, it is primarily the fault of Republicans. Should Obama have done more, and done it differently? Yes, he was much too kind to Wall Street and the banks, and didn't do anywhere near enough for the underwater homeowners they ripped off.

But Romney has nothing to offer except to continue the flow of wealth to the already wealthy, and the flow of jobs (and the money of the wealthy) out of the country.

jesse499 5 years ago

As I recall it was back with Clinton that the the banks were told to make these loans so that people could own there own home good idea but didn't workout so good did it.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years ago

Sorry, but there was never any requirement that banks engage in corrupt, criminal practices in order to make loans with horrible rates and conditions to people they knew couldn't afford them.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years ago

This is just a slightly different spin the the same old story, none of which has stood up to honest scrutiny. There's nothing ACORN or any of the other groups you mentioned could have done to force banks to make loans to borrowers they knew were unqualified, or to demand terms and conditions from otherwise qualified buyers that they knew were a complete ripoff. What made them do that was the fast bucks they could make by bundling them up and selling them off, which is all they and their Wall Street partners in this scam ever intended to do.

chootspa 5 years ago

If they'd trotted out a better candidate, Obama might have been 15 points behind the challenger.

chootspa 5 years ago

If they'd trotted out a better candidate, Obama might have been 15 points behind the challenger.

jesse499 5 years ago

Harry Reid that's is the guy we need to get out of there all he can do is say no we're not going to look at that. Harry (ROUND A BOUT) Reid just about as useful as a Round a bout everything gets to him and goes around in circles. Even more useless then Nancy P.

pace 5 years ago

The nuts are all complaining the Democrat''s speeches didn't make nut head repulsian points. I guess if the chair isn't empty it answers back.

bad_dog 5 years ago

Larry, here's a clue for you. Many of the issues currently at stake involve topics close to the hearts & minds of women. Whether it be abortion rights, contraception, education funding, etc., women are directly involved in the "issues at hand".

BTW, would you have the same interest/criticism of Ann Romney's involvement in Mitt's convention and campaign? Is her involvement just a "grab for female votes"?

Mick Allen 5 years ago

Heaven forbid that a woman would have an opinion on an issue, instead they should just let old men decide issues regarding women's health and reproductive issues.

Terry Sexton 5 years ago

"Also missing from her speech was any hint of his outsized self-regard and personal ambition. Is he pursuing re-election because he cares? Or because it’s the ultimate vindication of the self-created man who came from nowhere to seize the prize? And whom defeat would turn into a historical parenthesis?" CK

Charles, you are listening, but you do not hear. Self-regard & personal ambition? Prize seizing? You kidding me? Your insinuations are petty & hypocritical. In other words, they're on par with most of the current republican mindsets.

verity 5 years ago

Oh, my. Where to begin?

"I didn’t buy a word of it, but as a speech, Michelle’s was very effective." ? ? ?

". . . Bill Clinton, a man who lives to care, who feels your pain better than you do — or at least makes you think so." Ever heard of empathy, Mr. Krauthammer? Somehow I doubt that you know what that word means.

"Barack Obama is a deeply committed social-democrat who laid out an unashamedly left-liberal agenda at the very beginning of his presidency and then proceeded to try to enact it." I only wish.

This whole screed has the sound of abject desperation.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years ago

I made it as far as the first paragraph before nausea set in.

paulveer 5 years ago

Bozo, thank you for your comments.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years ago

You're welcome. (but I do it all for 1southerjayhawk.)

verity 5 years ago

Glad you could gain from my pain. I always try to help others.

tomatogrower 5 years ago

Dear Charles, Obama didn't need a cue card to remember to say "I care".

tomatogrower 5 years ago

And who forgot to give Romney the cue card to talk about the war and our troops? Oops.

fiddleback 5 years ago

Truly like a rusty hammer smeared with rancid sauerkraut.

So what else did Charles think was Michelle going to talk about? Vegetables? Fine, he wishes such emotional leveraging didn't enter the equation, but there's no better example of blind partisanship than an attempt to indict her heartwarming blather about family as "brilliantly cynical." Kraut blithely talks out of both sides of that cruel beak, having "no doubt" that Obama loves his wife and children, but insisting that there's no way that he loves his countrymen. Yes, the socialist Boogie man has no actual feelings; in fact he's most likely a Marxist cyborg sent back from the future to dominate us...so says the tinman of rightwing pundits.

But like Michelle's emotional speech, Kraut's anti-emotional rebuttal is utterly predictable; he's so crustified that he clearly doesn't know any other mode but spewing more rusty bile at strawmen.

In fact, he's such a quintessential curmudgeon, I can easily believe that he loves his opinions, but the proposition that he might love anything outside of that is a complete non-sequitur.


voevoda 5 years ago

Krauthammer's best evidence of Obama's "social-democratic" leanings is a government subsidy to a private company to develop alternative energy? Governments have been subsidizing industries that are key to national security ever since there have been governments. If such funding is okay for farmers and defense industries and oil companies, why not Solyndra? The only thing wrong with Solyndra is that the company went bust--as companies so often do. If helping Solyndra was really part of a "redistributionist, government-centered, disdainful of success, suspicious of private enterprise, committed to his [Obama's] own vision of social justice" plan, why would Obama have allowed it to fail in the way capitalists do? The fact of the matter is this: Obama isn't a "redistributionist;" he just thinks that people ought to contribute to society proportionally with their assets. That's a Biblical principle. ("There is no question of relieving others at the cost of hardship to yourselves; it is a question of equality. At the moment your surplus meets their need, but one day your need may be met from their surplus. The aim is equality." 2 Corinthians 8:13-14) He's not suspicious of private enterprise and he doesn't advocate government taking over the economy; that's why his innovations have involved working through private companies. Obama is certainly not disdainful of success; he is successful himself and has honored successful people. He just doesn't confuse wealth with success. As for his vision of social justice, it's Biblical, too. I should hope that Krauthammer shares it.

paulveer 5 years ago

Wrist, I don't care what you sound like, I still don't think you're a duck. And where are these inquiring minds you speak of?

voevoda 5 years ago

Because Obama's own views don't resemble communist ones at all, you need to try to make him out to be a communist because he has had contact with people whom you (often falsely) label as communist? Not a single person in his cabinet, not a single person on his staff, is actually a communist. None of Obama's statements suggest that he adheres to a communist ideology. Only people who don't know what Obama says and who don't know what communism is could possibly imagine that he is a communist.
What do you think could be on his college transcript that would identify Obama as a communist? If you survey the courses offered at the institutions where he got his education, you wouldn't find a single one that he could have taken that would reveal his political proclivities. If he took a course on Marxism, so what? So did tens of thousands of other students, including those motivated by the old adage "Know thine enemy."
If you actually knew any communists, WristTwister, you'd know that they can be loving parents and mentors, teaching young people to be honest, responsible, caring, and yes, patriotic.

Trumbull 5 years ago

The Republicans have been using the commie card for a long time. Examples: FDR, Ike, JFK, Obama. Nothing to see folks.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years ago

Transfer students don't qualify for honors at Columbia. But even if he was an affirmative action admit to Harvard Law, it's still unlikely that he made it in with anything much less that a 3.3 GPA (minimum for honors at Columbia.)

"Mr. Obama claimed a 3.7 while at Columbia." Source?

And his predecessor in the presidency was admitted to both Yale and Harvard as a "legacy" student-- AKA rich people's affirmative action.

Regardless, what is a fact is that Obama was among the top of his class out of Harvard Law, graduating magna cum laude. W barely squeaked through both Yale and Harvard with a reputation as more of a partier than a serious student.

msezdsit 5 years ago

Well wristtwister you are truly twisted.Pure fantasy. There is not one shred of validity to anything you posted. All you have done is parroted the propaganda that the right wingers have spewed and ahoen that you are both too gullible and unwilling (incapable) to think on your own or have any interest in the truth. You like the bs so thats good enough for you. Keep on pretending.

voevoda 5 years ago

The communist living in the White House was Richard Nixon. But for him, the US might not have been billions of dollars in debt to Communist China now.

fiddleback 5 years ago

Briefly cast on SNL to play dumb blondes, Jackson has since proven those roles to be her intellectual pinnacle. How very Christian of her to tape this; I assume she has an un-ironic "Bush was a fascist" ditty as well?

jonas_opines 5 years ago

If only it had been coming from a Republican, Charles would have been told to like it. Then we would have had a different article.

jonas_opines 5 years ago

Worse off that four years ago? I don't think you remember 2008 very well. You seem to be confusing it with 2006 or 2007. Granted, between 2008 and 2012, that's like the difference between having your whole leg amputated versus only below the knee.

But I don't know about you, but I'm substantially better off than I was in 2008. Not that Obama has jack to do with that. Much more due to actively trying to improve my lot, rather than waiting for some politician to come and fix my problems.

voevoda 5 years ago

It seems to me that it was Krauthammer who was hanging on every word Michelle Obama said. But I agree with you, commonsenseanyone, Krauthammer shows himself to be pathetic and gullible in this essay.

jonas_opines 5 years ago

Speaking entirely in talking points is fun, isn't it?

"We are farther in debt"

We've been further in debt every year (with a couple years exception during the 90s), every year for the last 30 or 40 years.

"Worse unemployment"

No argument, but trying to say that this is the result Only of the current administration, without sharing blame around to Congress, the previous Administration, the rise of internationalization of production, and American wage requirements, is simplistic, at best, and again strikes me as blaming the king for a lack of rain.

"Ridiculous health care bill"

The entire state of our current health care system is ridiculous. This bill, though, certainly won't do anything to actually fix it.

"Class warfare is at an all time high"

I doubt this even comes close to the early part of the 20th century. But if you look at how wages amongst economic demographics have skewed in the last several decades, it's hard to not see some degree of class warfare in existence for most of that time. Perhaps your problem is that now the low rungs are starting to get agitated about it.

You'll see whatever you want, of course. But it's pretty clear that your perception of the "American Mentality" (over-simplification alert), comes through a distorted lens.

riverdrifter 5 years ago

Oh, gawd. Somebody's on here actually quoting a nutball comedian as what it says are facts.


Terry Sexton 5 years ago

shhhht, (you don't mind if I call ya shhhht, do you?) what is the source of your vitriol? How do you stay so dedicated to your combative negativity? 'What's with the negative waves, man?" (source)

Once in a while, along with the insults, ya gotta toss an idea out there.

Trumbull 5 years ago

"The real job of Clintonizing Obama was left to Mrs. Obama."

Give us a break Krauthammer. This is a bunch of phony stuff you are making up. I believe many in this country are now seeing what obstructionism is doing for us. Misinformation and junk like this is begining to anger people. Keep it up, you are only helping the Democrats.

Obstructionism was used by the Republicans in FDR's 2nd term. They reveresed many of the New Deal initiatives. Many argued that it created a double dip depresssion and extended it. It is important to not let this happen again. I thought more would have seen the true villanous motive of the R's during the debt ceiling crisis, but I think Bill Clinton's speech was remarkably effective in shining a light on this.

Ken Lassman 5 years ago

I'm so disappointed, but perhaps a little proud as well. I've been thinking all along that Krauthammer's oh-so-predictable columns have titles that are double entendres, reflecting not so much the content of his column so much as they are imaginative projections that reflect insights into his own character. This week's title is a classic example: "first lady's speech 'brilliantly cynical.'" It is a kind of Krauthammerish aspiration that he himself aspires to accomplish, i.e. being brilliantly cynical. Alas, as usual, he falls short, retreating into mere cynicism, but at least he tried, right?

Out of curiosity, though, I checked the Washington Post, the flagship paper for his column, and alas found a different title for today's column: "An empathy gap." Of course the Krauthammer projection holds for this title as well, since he quite succeeds at marching around showing his empathy gap for all to see (I daresay telling him to zip up would be wasted breath). You must realize the degree of disappointment when I realized that he was not responsible for the title we read over his column here in the LJW.

But pride returned when I re-read the column and found that "brilliantly cynical" statement right in the middle, and realized that some local LJW employee pulled out this obvious projection and placed it atop the column in the true spirit of the projection embodied in the title provided by the Washington Post! Kudos to that enterprising employee for matching, if not exceeding the double entendre qualities of the original! Particularly impressive since it uses Krauthammer's own language, revealing what I must conclude is his own deep desires projected onto the personalities that he attacks in his column on a regular basis.

jayhawklawrence 5 years ago

I am not sure if Krauthammer was ever that interesting but he never used to be this boring.

It is the same song over and over and over....

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