Commentary Magazine


Presidential Semantics

Let’s take a look at the president’s semantics of late. In no accidental turn of phrase, he called his change regarding contraception “an accommodation” for those who have moral objections. Why didn’t he call it “a compromise,” which is what it supposedly is?

I suspect the reason has to do with the president’s great-pyramid-of-Giza-sized ego.

An accommodation is something handed out beneficently to those who have a problem. We accommodate people in wheelchairs on public transportation, we accommodate people with food allergies or religious needs by providing alternative meals. A compromise is something agreed to jointly by equals (it comes from the Latin for a mutual promise). Obama, in his own mind, has no equals. Hence, he is “accommodating” these people with their annoying moral scruples so at variance with liberal orthodoxy.

Likewise, the other day he told NBC’s Matt Lauer the reason he had been unable to be as transformational a president as he would have liked was that he had been unable to “force” Congress to pass his programs. What an interesting choice of words.

Oliver Cromwell “forced” the Rump Parliament to dissolve when he arrived with soldiers and told everyone to leave, saying famously, “You have sat long enough.” He dismissed the Mace (the symbol of Parliamentary authority–it lies before the speaker to this day) as a mere “fool’s bauble.”

One would think the word here should have been “convince.” But to admit he had been unable to convince Congress to pass his program would be to admit a failure on his part. Could the world’s most eloquent man be unable to convince a bunch of congressmen? To say he couldn’t “force” Congress, however, is to shift the blame to the Constitution (or perhaps even the Army, with its annoying scruples about being used for domestic political purposes). One can hardly help wondering if President Obama would, indeed, “force” Congress to do his bidding if he could.

I suspect there are many, many examples of how Obama’s self-regard affects his choice of words, and thus are windows into his essential psyche.