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May 22, 2009
Obama vs. Cheney: Man vs. Manchild
It was an extraordinary moment for our times. Two men with radically opposing viewpoints gave speeches on national security at roughly the same time and addressed most of the same subjects.
One, former Vice President Dick Cheney. The other, our current President Barack Obama. While it is difficult to be objective about the content of both speeches, a couple of general observations about the style and tone of the addresses can be made based on long standing principles of good speechmaking without resorting to (too much) partisanship.
I found the contrasting styles of the speeches fascinating. Cheney - elder statesman, experienced in government and politics - gave a speech that was a classic debaters' defense of Bush era policies as well as a straightforward tour d'horizon listing the threats we face an the nature of our enemies. Cheney's appeal was to the head, not the heart.
Obama, on the other hand, gave a speech he could have given a year ago during the campaign. High minded but defensive - almost as if he were responding to a campaign faux pas:
Note the appeal to sympathy and evasion of responsibility. Obama's speech is peppered with these little emotional appeals for understanding which is not only unseemly for a president but only serves to highlight his confusion and refusal to place national security above the plane of rhetoric and "values" and treat it like the hard headed, real world responsibility that it must be if we are to stay safe.
Cheney cooly dissected most of Obama's arguments, praising the president for some of his actions but pointing out in no uncertain terms that the president's starry eyed view of the threats we face as well as his plans with regard to Guantanamo do not make us safer:
On his second day in office, President Obama announced that he was closing the detention facility at Guantanamo. This step came with little deliberation and no plan. Their idea now, as stated by Attorney General Holder and others, is apparently to bring some of these hardened terrorists into the United States. On this one, I find myself in complete agreement with many in the President's own party. Unsure how to explain to their constituents why terrorists might soon be relocating into their states, these Democrats chose instead to strip funding for such a move out of the most recent war supplemental.
Note how Cheney cuts through the clutter and gets to the heart of the matter. He does it by appealing to logic and reason, not emotion. Even his frequent mentions of 9/11 during the speech were contextual and not designed to elicit an emotional reaction. It's what Obama failed to do in his speech. His context was "cleaning up the Bush mess," rather than fighting and winning the War on Terror.
There was nothing radically wrong with Obama's speech stylistically - if, as I said, he were still running for president. It flowed nicely. It laid out the liberal narrative on torture and Guantanamo smoothly. The frequent breaks for applause proved that his appeal to emotion worked quite well.
But the speech itself was appalling. It sounded whiny in places and extremely defensive. And this part sent chills down my spine:
I don't think I've ever seen such a narrow, self serving definition of government secrecy nor a lamer excuse for violating it. The same argument was made for opposing the Terrorist Surveillance Program; terrorists already know we listen to them so what's the big deal?
Cheney, to say the least, is not impressed:
Cheney knows full well it is stupidity and folly to "assume" your enemy "already knows" something so it is safe to release classified information. You never know what value the enemy will receive from such releases and besides, why take the chance that they can get anything that would help them?
For Obama, his "feel good" national security policy requires that it doesn't matter if the enemy gains an advantage, only that we adhere to his idea of "American values" - which wouldn't mean very much to dead Americans who were killed due to his frightening naivete and stupidity.
These were two speeches that featured competing world views, competing visions of America, and competing ideas on how to deal with the threats that face us. Cheney's statesmanlike address contrasted with Obama's campaign-style, defensive talk. One appealed to the head, the other the heart. One was delivered by a man, the other a man-child.
Dick Cheney is emerging as the elder statesman of the Republican party and the goto guy on critiquing Obama's national security policy. Let's hope he is accorded the opportunity to comment often.