“Look! . . . Up There!”

Barack Obama

Standing in a crowded street, a man points to the top of a building and shouts “Look,” the crowd obliges, and his partners in crime deftly relieve them of their wallets and purses. By the time the crowd realizes there’s nothing to look at, their financial situation has fallen precipitously.

“Look! . . . up there” is the simplest form of misdirection and has been pickpockets’ standard procedure for centuries. Shell game operators use a similar approach, relying on the hand being able to do things the eye cannot detect. Magicians and illusionists employ misdirection, as well, though they do so to entertain rather than take advantage of others.

Many politicians have been masters of misdirection. A common, relatively harmless example is their habit of ignoring awkward questions. When asked how he plans to vote on an immigration bill, Senator Longwind may respond, “There is no more important issue before the Senate than that of immigration. And the outcome of this vote will affect all Americans for generations yet unborn. No responsible senator will miss this opportunity to take a stand on this vital matter.” Gullible listeners may think he answered the question, but all he did was shift their attention to some high-sounding blather.

In our time, the undisputed master of political misdirection is President Obama.

  • To begin with, the President has managed for more than four years to divert the public’s attention from his performance to that of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Long after he should have shown progress with the problems he inherited—those, for example, in employment, housing, and energy—he continued to blame Bush.
  • Also, whenever a reporter had the temerity to ask “Aren’t the statistics worse since you took office?” the President would say matter-of-factly, “The situation I inherited was even worse than I realized.” That answer makes no sense, of course—his initial realization or lack thereof had no bearing on his performance statistics. But it was a classic case of “Look back then” instead of here and now.
  • Another, even grander example of the President’s misdirection can be seen in his continuing ability to separate himself from his programs and policies. This is clear in polls showing that he remains personally popular even though his policies are quite unpopular. He has accomplished this by using another “Look there, not here” stratagem and blaming Republicans, Fox News, talk radio, and assorted others, even though those people and institutions opposed his policies!

I believe Rush Limbaugh was the first to note the President’s amazing feat of keeping his public approval high even as approval of his policies sank. The “Limbaugh theorem” is that the President has managed to persuade people that he is a bystander of Washington events who “gets away with everything precisely by appearing to have no involvement with it.”  My argument complements that “theorem.” Rush is saying what President Obama has managed to do. I am identifying how he managed to do it—by misdirection.

In recent months the President has raised the practice of misdirection to a world-class level:

  • He has diverted discussion of tax reform from the legitimate question of fairness to all by stoking class envy and accusing successful people of not earning their success and paying their fair share. (His mentor, Saul Alinsky, would be proud of those moves. Alinsky wrote: “The organizer dedicated to changing the life of a particular community must first rub raw the resentments of the people of the community; fan the latent hostilities of many of the people to the point of overt expression.”)
  • In a classic application of “Look there not here,” the President misdirected the public’s attention from terrorist violation of the American embassy in Benghazi and murder of four Americans to a stupid, virtually unknown video that mocked Islam.
  • When this deception about Benghazi was exposed, the President cleverly misdirected attention from how it happened and who was responsible for it to his professed intention of finding the perpetrators and bringing them to justice. Then, after many months of ignoring that pledge, he began calling the entire affair a “phony scandal.” Historians of political misdirection may well dub this the Obama gambit—first point elsewhere, then (in turn) deplore and ignore, and finally deny that it happened in the first place.
  • The President’s piece de resistance was to apply the designation “phony scandal” to other genuine and fully documented scandals in his administration, including the Justice Department’s investigation of journalist James Rosen and examination of Associated Press reporters’ phone records, the IRS targeting of conservative groups, and the ATF’s “Fast and Furious” program that provided guns to Mexican drug dealers.

Presidents are often praised or criticized for the direction they have taken the country in. But Barack Obama is the first who is notable not so much for his choice of a direction as for his unswerving commitment to misdirection.

Copyright © 2013 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved