It is customary for politicians to describe an issue that is important to them as a problem. After all, problems require solutions, and solutions get them elected.
Rarely, if ever, will a politician describe a “condition” because conditions occur in the natural order and aren’t subject to positive intervention.
The Obama administration, however, has a new tactic, one that has raised the level of concern and the need for action. It describes every issue as a crisis. For example, we don’t have an unemployment problem, we have an unemployment crisis. We don’t have a healthcare problem — it has escalated to a crisis.
Moreover, if a problem is regarded as a crisis, the government must act immediately. No time to tarry. It is instructive that President Obama has noted that there is a deadline for healthcare reform. If Congress does not comply, God only knows what will happen.
Chief of staff Rahm Emanuel has said a crisis is too important to be wasted. Surely it is a way to motivate the Congress to act. Presumably that is why bills have been pushed through the byzantine process of lawmaking.
Yet it is obvious that no one, including President Obama, read or had any idea of what was the 1,200 page stimulus package of $787 billion. Here was a bill designed to deal with the “unemployment crisis.” When it was initiated, unemployment was at 7.6 percent; since its adoption, unemployment has risen to 9.5 percent. But that crisis — even more severe now — has been pushed aside for the healthcare crisis.
Obama has said that, if we do not act now, 47 million Americans without health insurance will be left floundering. Unfortunately, the president has neglected to point out that no American can be denied medical treatment in a public hospital. He also ignores the fact that the large majority in the uninsured category earn more than $75,000 a year and could afford insurance but choose not to register. And he might have pointed out that sizable numbers in this population are uninsured for a year or less.
But if he were to say these things, it would be hard to sustain the argument that there is a crisis.
Although there may be tactical value in claiming a crisis instead of a problem, there is a dangerous side to this approach. At this point, Obama is losing his credibility. This tactic is like crying wolf every time an issue emerges. Even if there were a crisis, why would you believe this president?
Moreover, this maneuver often confuses relatively manageable events with those that are intractable. As I see it, for example, healthcare insurance can be managed for a fraction of what the president has in mind if one realizes there are about 8 million people without insurance who do not have the means to pay for it and require government assistance.
By contrast, an Iran with nuclear weapons and the intention to use them to wipe Israel off the map may be a crisis-in-waiting if action isn’t taken to thwart this eventuality. Yet there isn’t any distinction in the rhetoric the president uses. Both are crises of seemingly similar magnitude.
In discussing North Korea’s missile tests, the president employed strong language to chastise Kim Jong-il. He noted at the time that words must have meaning. Rather than use words as an empty gesture, the president insisted that his language be taken seriously.
Yet the president himself undermines this assertion with grandiose claims that are unrealistic or heightening the importance of issues with fear-laden terminology.
Surely he must realize that not every matter that crosses his desk is a crisis. But with a mind-set of pushing legislation through à la FDR in the first 100 days of the New Deal, every matter is essential, every bill must be dealt with immediately and every issue is a national crisis.
If, God forbid, a national crisis does emerge that requires mobilizing public support, a significant part of the population will say: “Not again. This is simply another rhetorical exercise.”
If President Obama needs them, his rhetoric may push them away.
Herbert London is president of Hudson Institute and professor emeritus of New York University. He is the author of Decade of Denial (Lanham, Md: Lexington Books, 2001) and America's Secular Challenge (Encounter Books).
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