This fall, in the course of the ongoing tirade over taxing the rich, the president offered some informal remarks at a town hall meeting in Washington sponsored by CNBC. Obama was making the case that hedge fund managers should not be taxed at the same rates as their "secretaries" (I believe, Mr. President, they're called "administrative assistants" these days). That was when the real Barack Obama, grammatically speaking, slipped out. "The notion that somehow me saying maybe you should be taxed more like your secretary when you're pulling home a billion dollars...I don't think is me being extremist or me being antibusiness," Obama explained.
Most readers with even a minimal sensitivity to the language will detect that something has gone awry here. Those who possess a decent high school education should be able to tell you why.
My ninth-grade English teacher would have marked up the sentence in her big, fat red pencil with a stern reminder that "a pronoun before a gerund uses the possessive form." She would then have assigned a couple hundred practice exercises for homework and insisted that they be turned in correct and on time. The young Obama, had he not been hanging out on the street smoking dope (as he claims to have been doing), would have spent half the night writing out sentences like "The idea of my campaigning on hope and change is pretty cool" or "My writing the dreams from my father will probably make me president someday."
Unfortunately, Obama seems to have missed that lesson on possessives. But it is not just that the president is case-challenged. He appears to have skipped a few other lessons as well.
There is, in fact, a clear difference between the president's command of English grammar when he is ad-libbing and when he is reading from a teleprompter. Obama's command of the language in his several books is also at variance with his impromptu performances. It is almost as if Obama had no hand in writing his own formal remarks and the books published under his name.
The abyss between Obama's prepared remarks and informal answers was on display at his recent meeting with students in Mumbai, India. Following his long-winded prepared remarks and those of Michelle, the president was asked about the meaning of "jihad." His answer is one of the most befuddled and incoherent presidential performances in recent memory. And once again, the rambling attempt to grasp at some sort of politically innocuous answer (innocuous to jihadists, that is) was accompanied by one grammatical slip after another.
Responding to a question about how he was implementing the principles of Gandhi, Obama stated, "I can't ignore hardships that may be suffering -- that may be suffered by somebody of a different nationality." Again, though, it's not just the slip of the tongue. It's the disturbing fact that our president is always more concerned about the hardships of "different nationalities" than he is about those of his own.
So it's not just Mumbai, and it's not just grammar. There is something troubling about a president who begins to speak of himself in the third person. In his news conference of July 22, 2009, Obama dealt with questions about health care reform. Attacking Republican opposition, he stated that "the politics may dictate that they don't vote for health care reform because they think, you know, it'll make Obama more vulnerable." Shades of Richard Nixon, here. "You'll be sorry. You won't have Obama -- er, Nixon -- to kick around."
Of course, all recent presidents have employed speechwriters. The last president to write his own speeches, I believe, was Calvin Coolidge. But all modern presidents have possessed at least a basic command of English grammar. Even those who were not college-educated, such as Harry Truman, at least graduated from high schools where the study of grammar and composition were prerequisites for graduation.
Obama has told us (in Dreams from My Father) that he was not a very serious student in high school or even in college. By his own admission, he was spending a lot more time on the street than in class. Since grammar and composition are usually covered in the years between the ninth grade and the freshman year of college, Obama's absence from class might account for his grammatical lapses.
I know that some would argue that grammar is the least of Obama's failings. And at a time when the president's approval ratings on handling of the economy and dealing with the deficit have slipped into the thirties, there seems to be wide agreement about that. But I would argue that Obama's failure to master English grammar and other elements of English composition, including larger elements such as consistency, coherence, and logic, has a great deal to do with the kind of person and president Obama is.
All students of English composition are taught, for example, to avoid false or crudely constructed comparisons. It is an elementary point of critical thinking, in fact, that one should avoid the setting up of "straw men" (a practice that is included among the "informal fallacies" of logic). Most students who attempt to use the straw man argument are soon set right by their instructors.
Obama must have missed this lesson as well since he constantly resorts to this crude form of argument. "There are those who are trying to steal our democracy." Really? Who are these shadowy democracy thieves? Aren't they closer to ACORN and SEIU than the United States Chamber of Commerce and Fox News?
Only a person with a somewhat breezy notion of logic could come up with the slogan "We are the ones we've been waiting for." Aside from the really creepy suggestion of narcissism, the sentence suggests an almost pathological condition of schizophrenia. How is it that one can be waiting for oneself unless the self is so divided or conflicted as to be split in half? Had the president studied English composition, he might have corrected the sentence to read something like this: "We, the left wing of the Democratic Party, are the ones the country has been waiting for." But that might have been a little too unambiguous for Obama's purposes.
There is something, however, even more troubling about a president whose thought process is imprecise and incoherent. That is the possibility that his mental limitations may translate into harmful policy decisions. I suppose that a national leader can get by with poor grammar if at the same time he possesses a sharp mind and common sense. Andrew Jackson, one of our greatest presidents, received only a patchy and irregular education, and Abraham Lincoln little more. But Barack Obama, who was awarded a law degree from Harvard, stammers and stumbles every time he addresses an audience without the aid of written remarks. If the president is unable to form a coherent sentence in the absence of a teleprompter, what must his mental life be like the rest of the time? That is a troubling thought, indeed.
Jeffrey Folks is author of many books and articles on American culture and politics.