Deciphering Obama: The President’s Complicating Syntax

U.S. President Barack Obama address reporters at the White House on Tuesday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)


Barack Obama ran once for the U.S. presidency promising hope and change, then once mostly appealing for more time to allow his policies to work. But increasingly, it appears likely his legacy will be more about “red lines” and something called “permission structures.”

The 44th president has taken plenty of heat over his rhetorical gyrations on both sides of the very “red line” he set last year on Syria’s bloody civil war. And political pundits and those with a stake in overturning the much-maligned sequestration cuts are still scratching their heads over the the newest Obama turn-of-phrase: “permission structures.”

The problem for Obama — and by extension, stakeholders in the quest for a “grand bargain” fiscal deal that would undo the defense and domestic sequestration cuts (and by further extension, the entire country) — is his syntax has become complicated. And, as a result, it is complicating the work of getting things done, maintaining a sense of presidential authority in Washington and transmitting consistent leadership on the world stage.

For another project, I have spent the last five months closely examining the words of Candidate Obama and then President Obama. What I found was a coarsening over time of Obama’s syntax. Candidate Obama was hailed as one of the great orator’s in U.S. political history.

My examination of Obama’s rhetoric — which focused on drone strikes, covert raids and the fight against al-Qaida — reveals the longer Obama is inside the infamously insular “presidential bubble,” the more his rhetoric is becoming a double-edged sword.

For instance, since he emerged on the national — and world — stage in the mid-2000s, Obama’s style is to use bold descriptors. “Red line” is a perfect example.

But, the longer he is president, the more he wraps these bold action phrases in murky qualifiers. Take his August 2012 comments about “red lines” in Syria:

“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. … That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”

That comment — like so many others uttered in recent years by Obama — requires quite a bit of unpacking, much like removing the skin of an onion.

The media (full disclosure: self included), congressional GOP interventionists, hawks and anti-genocide liberals — predictably — heard four words: “red line” and “chemical weapons.” That’s what Washington and the world has been focused on for months.

Obama’s actions since his administration last week revealed U.S. intelligence officials believe chemical weapons were used in Syria — likely by Bashar al-Assad’s regime — show the commander in chief was and is focused on the other words and phrases in those complicated — and complicating — sentences.

For Obama, “whole bunch of” and “change my calculus” seem far more important than any black-and-white analysis focused solely on “red line” and “chemical weapons.” He added a few layers to the pungent Syria onion on Tuesday, as I reported on Intercepts:

“We don’t know how they were used, when they were used, or who used them. … We don’t have a chain of custody.”

This is how Obama thinks: “Who used them.” “Chain of custody.” “Whole bunch of.” “Change my calculus.”

Where most of the rest of us see a “red line,” Obama seems to see a mosaic of purples, pinks, blues, yellows and greens.  We see a “red line” crossed. But red is a primary color. And that means the components of his complicated mosaic may never come together to form a “red line.” That could leave his Syria policy murky at best. That will leave him — and the United States — open to criticism and questions, which could prove complicating.

Conservative Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., has been an outspoken Obama critic. And conservative columnist David Brooks, who seems to have Obama pegged as well as anyone, has at times been the same. Both in recent days have applauded the president for his cautious approach toward and rhetoric about Syria.

But, on this 10th anniversary of then-President George W. Bush’s premature aircraft carrier deck “mission accomplished” declaration about the Iraq war, Obama’s complicated syntax about just what he intends to do — and not do — in Syria is becoming a bit too complicating for a war-fatigued nation and military.

The same is increasingly true of the president’s domestic rhetoric. And, for the defense sector, Obama’s complicated words are truly complicating its desire to have the remaining (aprx.) $450 billion sequestration cut to planned Pentagon spending voided or substantially lessened.

The impediment for the kind of sweeping fiscal deal that would do just that is the same today as in August 2011: An agreement between Obama and congressional Republicans over more federal revenue (read: tax hikes for the wealthy and closed corporate loopholes), cuts and changes to domestic entitlement programs, and additional cuts to other federal programs.

GOP sources say Obama proposes things behind closed doors but then proposes much less in front of the cameras. And, let’s face it, Republicans inside and outside the Beltway think poorly of Obama. A recent AP-GfK poll found his approval rating among Republicans at just 10 percent.

The president was correct Tuesday when he described the political realities that are obstructing the path toward voiding sequestration with a “grand bargain.”

“I cannot force Republicans to embrace those commonsense proposals. … Their [voter] base thinks compromise with me is, somehow, a betrayal. They’re worried about primaries, I understand that.”

But, then, came more complicated — and complicating — Obama syntax:

“We’re working to create some permission structures to help them do that.”

Given his own analysis of why Republican lawmakers are wary of voting for an Obama-backed “grand bargain” bill, the president only further complicates things by even insinuating he would be giving them “permission” to do anything.

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett