How a nuanced president uses exaggeration.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
April 7 2009 6:43 PM

The Careful Exaggerator

How Obama balances his rhetoric to fit the situation.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
President Barack Obama

As President Obama traveled through Europe, he was a study in nuance. Speaking to a town hall in Strasbourg, France, he admitted American arrogance but also chided Europeans for their casual anti-Americanism. In another context, he quoted his college law professor: "Some are to blame, but all are responsible."In a town hall with students in Turkey, he pushed for nuance as an end in itself: "In the Muslim world, this notion that somehow everything is the fault of the Israelis lacks balance. There are two sides to every question. ... I say the same thing to my Jewish friends—which is, you have to see the perspective of the Palestinians. Learning to stand in somebody else's shoes, to see through their eyes—that's how peace begins."

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Compared with the black-and-white approach of his predecessor, Obama's technique is practically grisaille. Yet while the nuance is intellectually welcome and politically beneficial—Americans appreciate its display on the world stage—it operates alongside another Obama trait: He's also a nuance-free exaggerator. In Turkey, he told students, "Some of my reporter friends from the States were asking, 'How come you didn't solve everything on this trip?' "

A politician is always on safe ground charging that the press has gone overboard. But no one was asking that question.

Nor was anyone saying what Obama said some people were saying in his press conference last month: "We did a video, sending a message to the Iranian people and the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran. And some people said, 'Well, they did not immediately say that we're eliminating nuclear weapons and stop funding terrorism.' " No one said that. But it helped Obama make his pitch for patience.

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Obama exaggerates to free himself from the demands of the news cycle, which he described in France: "In an age of instant gratification, it's tempting to believe that every problem can and should be solved in the span of a week. When these problems aren't solved, we conclude that our efforts to solve them must have been in vain." When it comes to the economy, polls show that people are very patient. What Obama hopes to do though this exaggerated description is make all criticism seem like an irrational rush to judgment.

Often he plays Aunt Sally for rhetorical effect. He doesn't mischaracterize, exactly, but he exaggerates to bring his point into higher relief—as he did last week when talking about the ongoing threat of terrorism: "Some people say … if we changed our policies with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or if we were more respectful towards the Muslim world, suddenly these organizations would stop threatening us. That's just not the case."

It is in domestic political battles with Republicans, however, that the president's exaggerations may be sharpest. They are intended to make his opponents look foolish. "Some of what's been said in Congress is that there seems to be a set of folks who just believe that we should do nothing," he said of Republicans during the debate over the stimulus bill. Almost no one was suggesting that nothing be done. Writing in the Washington Post, he offered another cartoonish view, saying that his opponents believe "that we can ignore fundamental challenges such as energy independence and the high cost of health care and still expect our economy and our country to thrive."

Obama is not alone. He probably exaggerates no more than a typical politician. Republicans haul out the specter of socialism on the hour, and on the half hour they say Obama wants to turn America into Europe. But Obama prides himself on considered speech, and few politicians have talked and written about improving political dialogue as much as he has. "I am convinced that whenever we exaggerate or … oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose," he wrote in his second book, The Audacity of Hope.

He might be wrong about that one. According to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, Obama is as popular as ever. And his Republican opponents in Congress received their lowest approval rating in the entire span of history in which that question has been asked. No exaggeration.

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