George F. Will: It's a question of context

Published: August 12, 2012
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Barack Obama claims only that his legislative and foreign policy achievements in his first two years matched those of “any president — with the possible exceptions of Johnson, FDR and Lincoln” in “modern history.” Some Obama enthusiasts are less restrained.

They suggest that among presidents, he ranks as the most learned since John Quincy Adams, the most profound since James Madison and the most visionary since Thomas Jefferson. And he is, of course, the most rhetorically gifted politician since Pericles.

Yet, remarkably, he is frequently misunderstood. How can this be?

After the June 8 news conference in which he said “the private sector is doing fine,” he, responding to the public's strange inability to parse plain English, held another news conference in which he said: “It's absolutely clear the economy is not doing fine; that's the reason I had a press conference.”

That clarified everything, but then on July 13 the public, which Obama really must regard as a disappointment, again failed to comprehend him. In Roanoke, Va., he gave what any reasonable person must admit was an admirably pithy and entirely clear distillation of his political philosophy: “You didn't build that.” The public's obtuseness forced his campaign to run an ad saying “my words about small business” had been taken “out of context.” Ah, context.

As Obama tries to cope with the public's peculiar inability to discern his meanings, perhaps he can take comfort from very similar difficulties of another candidate for national office. On Aug. 18, 1920, the Democrats' vice presidential nominee, campaigning in Butte, Mont., said it would be fine for the United States to join the League of Nations because our nation would have multiple votes. He assured listeners that “the votes of Cuba, Haiti, San Domingo, Panama, Nicaragua and of the other Central American states” would not be cast “differently from the vote of the United States,” which is “the big brother of these little republics.”

Then, referring to his days as assistant secretary of the Navy, the vice presidential candidate said: “You know I have had something to do with running a couple of little republics. The facts are that I wrote Haiti's constitution myself and, if I do say so, I think it a pretty good constitution.” He added: “Why, I have been running Haiti or San Domingo for the past seven years.”

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