Obama Off the Cuff

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Conservatives caricature 24/7 Barack Obama’s reliance on the teleprompter. True, his speeches are scripted; but we forget why so: He is very good at reading a prepared script as if he were talking off the top of his head, and he is very bad at actually talking off the top of his head. In the former mode, he sounds pleasantly moderate and mellifluous; in the latter, sort of creepy and awkward.

Yet the result is paradoxical: Obama seems to feel false when he sounds balanced and eloquent reading someone else’s ideas on a teleprompter, and genuine only when he is extreme and ad hoc in his own words. Because teleprompted eloquence is by definition somewhat artificial, Obama believes that his real wit and insight are appreciated only in extemporaneous exposition.

Yet here lies another paradox: His lack of judgment is not evident on the teleprompter, but is only fully illustrated when he is off it and his more extreme ideas are candidly expressed.

All presidents reveal glimpses of themselves through gaffes and off-the-cuff candor. Richard Nixon’s various paranoias were most evident on the secret White House audiotapes. Reagan’s anti-Soviet feelings were behind his open-mike joke, “We begin bombing in five minutes.” When George W. Bush blurted out “Dead or alive” or “Bring ’em on,” the impromptu bombast seemed to reflect his cowboy image.

Such revelations are all the more striking in Obama’s case since rarely has a president’s ideology been so at variance with his public persona. His real views have been gleaned mostly from unguarded moments when he talks confidently without prompts — and therefore sounds conniving and shallow.

We learn about Obama’s views toward Israel not from campaign speeches, in which he soars with platitudes to raise money from the Jewish community, but when he is caught on an open mike with French president Sarkozy rudely ridiculing Israeli prime minister Netanyahu, or in a leak about snubbing the Israeli leader at the White House, or in a statement by the Palestinian foreign minister to the effect that administration officials had advised the Palestinian leadership to “sit tight” during the present election year — until Obama no longer need face the electorate and thus its displeasure for forcing concessions upon the Israelis.

For all the talk about the need for federal courts to audit errant state immigration legislation or to strike down the Defense of Marriage law, Obama does not believe in either an inactive or an active judiciary, only in one that parrots his own ideology. When jurists do this, they become sober and judicious; when they might not, then we hear an impromptu screed that Supreme Court justices are “an unelected group of people” who should not “somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law” — “an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress.”

Are we worried about Obama’s naïveté in dealing with the Russians on arms control, short-changing the Poles and Czechs on missile defense, and not quickly dropping the failed reset diplomacy? We should be, but we know that only because we have ignored his scripted rhetoric about Russia and listened instead to his embarrassing gaffe when he was caught on another open mike assuring President Medvedev that after the election our president would be more flexible with Putin, in a fashion that most Americans would find disturbing. In that exchange, the president seemed to regard all Americans as veritable Pennsylvania clingers, backward emotional folk who do not understand the diplomatic nuances of their more gifted technocrats.

Impromptu bows to a Saudi sheik or a Japanese monarch are also not written in the margins of the script, but they likewise give insights into the sort of multilateral, we-are-all-equal worldview that Obama envisions for America. Almost any time the president is abroad and goes impromptu, he must send shivers up the spines of his handlers: How he will react to the anti-American rant of a Daniel Ortega, or what new critique of his presidential predecessors will he come up with in Turkey?

Take also the question of race. Officially, in scripted speeches, we still hear the healing tropes of 2008. Unofficially and in clumsy fashion, we are told that America is a society in which police officers stereotype and act stupidly. Presidential wisdom about the Trayvon Martin tragedy is limited to a tribal reflection that the son Barack Obama never had would have resembled the deceased — an odd observation whose exact intent is still not clear. In 2008, “typical white person” and the clingers speech were also ad hoc and not teleprompted, but these repulsive remarks proved to be more accurate harbingers than any soaring script explaining away the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

How about healing and unity — as in the no-more-red-America-or-blue-America sermons of the past? For the answer to that we turn to the imprompu “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun,” “Get in their faces,” “tea-baggers,” and “punish our enemies.” Or consider Obama’s private call to Sandra Fluke and his later quip that he did not wish his daughters to grow up in a world in which a Rush Limbaugh defames women — without much cognizance that his own campaign affiliates had gladly accepted $1 million from the misogynist Bill Maher, or that he now de facto owned the comments of his celebrity supporter, who had said far worse things about women than had Limbaugh — but without commensurate presidential rebuke.

Obama felt impulsively that he must editorialize that the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords teaches us about the need for civility in public discourse — without much worry that soon those words could come back to haunt him. They surely did when labor leader Jimmy Hoffa Jr., in Obama’s presence, appeared to threaten violence, with the promise, “President Obama, this is your army. We are ready to march. Let’s take these son-of-a-bitches out and give America back to an America where we belong.”

The inadvertent Obama gives glimpses of his them-vs.-us world, in which doctors lop off limbs and rip out tonsils for cash, fat cats junket to Vegas on their kids’ tuition money, the uncaring don’t know when to stop their profiteering and they worry little about spreading the wealth. In the world of the flippant Obama, energy prices should “skyrocket”; Brazil should sell us the sort of offshore oil we ourselves will not develop; and proper tire pressure, tune-ups, and algae can substitute for more drilling. In these moments of candor, there are no speechwriters, and no canned phrases moving down a screen, spiced with the Nixonian “Make no mistake about it” and “Let me be perfectly clear” fillers. The thoughts, phraseology — and incoherence — are all Obama’s own.

If it comes down to a choice between an eloquent delivery of someone else’s neatly crafted liberal ideas and Obama’s ad-hoc revelations of his own hard-left worldview, it is no wonder why most of us prefer the teleprompter.

©2012 Victor Davis Hanson

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