The reason why I didn’t like my last entry was that I wrote it using an imperious tone that I didn’t deserve. It has less to do with my eloquence. I could express my point more eloquently, but it wouldn’t matter. Basically, I’m being an epistemic jackass. Let’s say you ask me, “What time is it?” I reply, “3:30PM.” I make this reply without hemming or hawing. I don’t say, “I think it’s 3:30PM” even though it’s true that I’m not actually sure what time it is. You are definitely warranted in believing my testimony. I’m the one being the jackass, speaking claims as truth when, in fact, I am unwarranted in making claims in such bold terms.
The lesson isn’t that you shouldn’t ever propose that it is 3:30PM, but if you’re unsure, well then you better damn communicate that you’re unsure.
So with the caveat that this is idle speculation, let me present a hypothesis about the “Obama is doing too much” meme. It does not feel as if it’s an argument made in good faith.
It does not feel like a real argument. First, it is a very odd criticism. You did not hear it from these people when Bush tried to fight two wars at the same time. It is not as if this is a sentiment that these talking heads normally put out there. Second, it feels as if it is a talking point as opposed to an argument. It has a uniform quality that comes from parroting as opposed to reasoned thinking. These are two reasons why I don’t think it is something that comes from the depths of these commentators souls.
My guess, which I will soon surround with more caveats, is that this is a delaying tactic as opposed to a real argument. Well, I mean, you don’t see them trot out arguments against universal health care, et al. You say, “Yes, I agree with X and Y, but I think we need to take care of the economy first.” These, however, tend to be the same people who have been criticizing Obama for his handling of the economy. The talking heads are also the target of Obama’s tax hikes and they don’t seem too happy about it. There’s nothing wrong with being opposed to Obama; I just wanted to point that general fact out. You can see it via Greenwald, where the pundits are now self-identifying with “The Establishment.” It all gets murky as to what alliances lie where (especially when it comes to civil liberties and how Obama is part of this establishment), but when it comes to the economic issue, you have Obama on one side and some rich people, including these pundits, on the other side.
It’s actually a subtle argument designed to attack Obama rather than his proposals. It’s couched in reasonable terms (oh, I think we should take it slow; therefore I am a moderate), but it is a very pernicious argument against Obama’s competency.
The problem is that Obama is popular. The more you attack him head-on, the more ridiculous you look. American opinion is behind him, not the cocooned opinions of the talking heads. The proponents of the “too fast” meme don’t like Obama’s current plans for the economy or his future plans for health care, etc. They say stuff like “Now is not the time,” but their real argument is “It’s never the right time.” You say the former instead of the latter to avoid the criticism that comes with making a bolder claim.
Now, the problem with my claim is, “Look, since when do pundits give a shit about not saying ridiculous things?” Also, there is the problem that I’m overgeneralizing and simplifying the psychology of a whole group of people. These are all things I hate when I see other people do them. So let me back off. I heard Jim Cramer make this argument. I heard my dad either make this argument, or quote others as saying it. My dad is generally conservative (whatever that means anymore) and does not like Obama in the first place. Jim Cramer likes to cloak himself as someone who voted for Obama. I know this game. I used to play it when I used my conservative cred to call for “liberal” policies. And my dad was employing an argument that would appeal to me as an Obama supporter. So in these two instances, we see a level of being disingenuous. They don’t like those policies, and yet they’re arguing that we should wait for those policies. My dad’s in the position of many pundits. Those who aren’t fully entrenched in the Republican cocoon face an audience that is comprised of lots of Obama-supporters. They’re not going to swallow the full-on argument, so you give them something more palatable.
There’s two levels of this, and it’s very reasonable for people to hold contradictory beliefs. Liberals did it all the time simultaneously portraying Rove as an evil genius and a bumbling moron. Sometimes, a person can be both, but this is a complicated thing to explain and I’ll just pass over the point.
The first level is giving an argument that is disingenous. You don’t care whether Obama is going slow or not. You actually don’t like his policies. The best way to defeat them is to say, “Not now.” You’re acting as a delayer when you can hopefully counter Obama when he’s less popular.
On the second level, you’re making an argument about Obama’s character, as opposed to the policies. Implied in going too fast is: He doesn’t know what he’s doing; he’s trying to handle too much at once. From this, one is supposed to further deduce: Obama is incompetent so we should not trust him to handle any issue. Hence, I would come to hold the opinion that one is trying to convince me all along — namely, that Obama is a terrible president. It is couched in moderated terms, but it is a terribly pernicious argument. It is designed to undermine Obama.
Is this second level disingenous? I mean, the first level is only disingenuous to an extent. It’s not an out-and-out lie, but it does have a level of BS. The second may actually be a legitimate concern. You don’t like Obama, and your interpretation is framed by your preconceived notion of his incompetence. Fair enough.
I think the disingenous claim, perhaps, is the proposition, “It is not the correct time to address problem X.” Your problem isn’t the timing, it’s the content of the way Obama is trying to address problem X. You also don’t care about the timing of issue X qua issue X, but with respect to any issue. It is worth asking that if X were something you supported, would you change your mind? My guess is that those arguing in good faith will answer immediately answer yes, while those arguing in bad faith will be temporarily taken aback by a question they hadn’t considered.
In any case, it is useless to argue against an argument made in bad faith. There are two purposes for the main argument. One is to delay against an issue somebody probably doesn’t like in the first place. It is probably necessary to ask whether the person would oppose issue X at all times, or even Obama’s approach to X at all times. A possible rhetorical move is to say, “Well, then, your problem is with X, not with the timing at all.” The second purpose is to portray Obama as incompetent. Any argument that it is possible to handle more than one thing at once isn’t going to undermine this claim. I think I’ve seen this argument on The Washington Monthly and maybe some other liberal blogs. Instead, it is a specific argument against a specific person. One must argue that Obama is good enough to handle all of this at once.