Obama, strawmen and the triangulation model of rhetoric

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

I wrote a comment on Orange and thought it was worth saying here.  I first became aware of this tactic from reading David Sirota and Big Tent Democrat in late 2006, when Obama was first talking about running.  I resisted in my understanding, however, because I wanted to believe.  It involves binary oppositions, strawmen and triangulation.

It’s the triangulation model of rhetoric.  President Obama does it a lot, again today.  He posits two extremes, well meaning, but wrong, and then places himself in the pragmatic middle.  It’s an easy rhetorical game.  You define the extremes in such a way that your position, no matter what it is, is the “reasonable” one.  Often the postions are mischaracterized, i.e., strawmen created, so that the middle position is obviously better than the well meaning but wrong headed “extremes.”

It’s very effective, but it is a rhetorical game.  Obama today:

We see that, above all, in how the recent debate has been obscured by two opposite and absolutist ends. On one side of the spectrum, there are those who make little allowance for the unique challenges posed by terrorism, and who would almost never put national security over transparency. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who embrace a view that can be summarized in two words: “anything goes.” Their arguments suggest that the ends of fighting terrorism can be used to justify any means, and that the President should have blanket authority to do whatever he wants – provided that it is a President with whom they agree.

Both sides may be sincere in their views, but neither side is right. The American people are not absolutist, and they don’t elect us to impose a rigid ideology on our problems. They know that we need not sacrifice our security for our values, nor sacrifice our values for our security, so long as we approach difficult questions with honesty, and care, and a dose of common sense. That, after all, is the unique genius of America. That is the challenge laid down by our Constitution. That has been the source of our strength through the ages. That is what makes the United States of America different as a nation.



Obama’s been doing it for a long time.  It works, so long as no one critically analyzes what he says.  For example, was the Bush program really “anything goes”?  As bad as they were, they had some limits.  Granted, their limits were pretty damn low.  But I don’t see evidence of electricity applied to genitals, etc.  Bush did leave office.  I opposed Bush totally, but what he did was bad enough on its own.  See it for what it was.  He should have been impeached during his first term.  

Do the critics of Obama’s moderation on these issues really NEVER put national security over transparency?  That’s many of the people here he’s characterizing.  

Those are strawmen and Obama knows it.  

More, after the fold.  

The first diary I ever wrote on Daily Kos in January 2007 addressed this issue.  


This is my first diary and I picked a topic likely to cause some controversy.  I just watched Obama on Face the Nation.  He was okay, but that was it.  He did not endorse Senator Kennedy’s bill.  He did not oppose it, but said he and Senator Levin supported Kennedy’s aims.  Obama sought a “bipartisan approach” between “immediate withdrawal” and the failed “stay the course” with a surge.

Obama was a strong opponent to the invasion.  He continues to oppose the war.  He seems wedded, however, to a methodology of decision-making on issues in which he tries to find middle ground.  So, he is for bringing some troops home within 6 months.    

That’s good, but not good enough.  We need to pull opponents of the war in the Senate to Kennedy’s position.  This is why we need a strong left wing of the Democrat Party.  If nothing else, it moves the center for which Obama seems to search to the left.


We need to build a strong movement for immediate withdrawal. If nothing else, it will pull the center toward more and faster withdrawal.

I agree with President Obama on policy choices more than with any President in my lifetime.  I was too young to have opinions about Eisenhower or JFK.  (I was 8 when JFK was assasinated.)  On many things, I agree with President Obama.  Probably as much as 70% of the time.

But I will do what I told my daughter to do when she was just a little girl: critically analyze statements.  The rhetorical triangulation is fun, but I prefer thinking for myself.

As for the content of Obama’s speech today, it was good, very good.  I understand why he is making choices he has regarding justice for the criminal Bush adminstration.  I don’t agree, but I don’t expect to always agree. And when I don’t, I say so.  It’s okay to disagree with the President.  This President tries to follow the Constitution:

I can stand here today, as President of the United States, and say without exception or equivocation that we do not torture, and that we will vigorously protect our people while forging a strong and durable framework that allows us to fight terrorism while abiding by the rule of law. Make no mistake: if we fail to turn the page on the approach that was taken over the past several years, then I will not be able to say that as President. And if we cannot stand for those core values, then we are not keeping faith with the documents that are enshrined in this hall.

The Framers who drafted the Constitution could not have foreseen the challenges that have unfolded over the last two hundred and twenty two years. But our Constitution has endured through secession and civil rights – through World War and Cold War – because it provides a foundation of principles that can be applied pragmatically; it provides a compass that can help us find our way. It hasn’t always been easy. We are an imperfect people. Every now and then, there are those who think that America’s safety and success requires us to walk away from the sacred principles enshrined in this building. We hear such voices today. But the American people have resisted that temptation. And though we have made our share of mistakes and course corrections, we have held fast to the principles that have been the source of our strength, and a beacon to the world.

Update: McJoan at Orange sees the same thing:


We see that, above all, in how the recent debate has been obscured by two opposite and absolutist ends.  On one side of the spectrum, there are those who make little allowance for the unique challenges posed by terrorism, and who would almost never put national security over transparency. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who embrace a view that can be summarized in two words: “anything goes.” Their arguments suggest that the ends of fighting terrorism can be used to justify any means, and that the President should have blanket authority to do whatever he wants – provided that it is a President with whom they agree.

To this, I have an extreme objection. That is a strawman and is nonsense. Accepting and forwarding the Republican frame that those who are arguing for accountability would sacrifice national security is damaging. That’s accepting the canard that transparency aids and abets the enemy. On behalf of the ALCU, the CCR, the EFF, every organization that has worked diligently for the past eight years to let Americans know what the Bush administration did in our names, I reject the characterization.


Skip to comment form

    • TomP on May 21, 2009 at 17:40

    critically thinking.

    I might post this on Orange later, but, really, they just want to say awesome, awesome.

    The gangs suceed when people don’t post on Orange because of the vicious attacks.  They chased away Sirota.

    Maybe after people here read this.  Maybe tomorrow?  What do you think?    

    • quince on May 21, 2009 at 17:47

    Like when he frames our call for prosecutions as “retribution”. Its a complete mischaracterization – and he knows better.

    At some point will we call this what it is, lying?  

  1. this is excellent,and Ill read again, after I get my errands done.

    I tried to watch and do the liveblog at GOS, which is always a challenge for me since theyre in two adjacent rooms (TV and comp).

    I …. sigh … frustrated. He came so close. And so many of the things he said indicate that he absolutely DOES know the essential Truth. But he’s ultimately making the political decisions he needs to make… hmmm.

    My takeaway, the best bit, Ill go look for the script…

    Together we have a responsibility to enlist our values in the effort to secure our people, and to leave behind the legacy that makes it easier for future Presidents to keep this country safe.


    There is a core principle that we will apply to all of our actions: even as we clean up the mess at Guantanamo, we will constantly re-evaluate our approach, subject our decisions to review from the other branches of government, and seek the strongest and most sustainable legal framework for addressing these issues in the long-term. By doing that, we can leave behind a legacy that outlasts my Administration, and that endures for the next President and the President after that; a legacy that protects the American people, and enjoys broad legitimacy at home and abroad.

    That is what I mean when I say that we need to focus on the future. I recognize that many still have a strong desire to focus on the past. When it comes to the actions of the last eight years, some Americans are angry; others want to re-fight debates that have been settled, most clearly at the ballot box in November. And I know that these debates lead directly to a call for a fuller accounting, perhaps through an Independent Commission.

    I have opposed the creation of such a Commission because I believe that our existing democratic institutions are strong enough to deliver accountability. The Congress can review abuses of our values, and there are ongoing inquiries by the Congress into matters like enhanced interrogation techniques. The Department of Justice and our courts can work through and punish any violations of our laws.

    While I may not agree exactly, I feel some relief that at least he has finally come out and said SOMETHING definitive on the matter. sheesh. And if you ask me, he is still leaving the door open for DoJ to do their frikkin job.

  2. I was wondering what was driving me so crazy about some of Obama’s language.

    It’s so ironic — this kind of bullshit rhetoric represents the very thing Obama is saying we should put behind us.

    I guess straw men are very hardy creatures whose survival skills we should never underestimate!  argh.

  3. and for reminding me to pay attention – I hasn’t even noticed he was doing this but now that you point it out I’m sure it will annoy me for years to come.  

    I am not completely sure Obama is to blame for the triangulation though.  The two extremes are usually invented for polarization and while they are indeed strawment, they are already someone’s recognizable version of reality. It is depressing that politicians use strawmen(and even bogeymen) when communicating with us – pretending that the fantasies that we have been fed are real so as not to challenge our realities. It seems like a banker who keeps two record books.

    I wouldn’t want to wade into that sea of idiots over there either(sorry Budhy) but there might be a few who appreciate this diary.

  4. On one side of the spectrum, there are those who make little allowance for the unique challenges posed by terrorism, and who would almost never put national security over transparency.

    Its not between nat’l security and transparency. Its between war crimes as State Sponsored Policy vs. Accountability & justice.

  5. Most folks who try to deconstruct like this let themselves get too complex and it tends to obscure the point.

    You hit it juuuust right!

  6. And President Obama has yet to do anything that really showed principle or courage.

    The stimulus bill didn’t have enough infrastructure projects and had too much out-year spending.

    I can live with a huge budget deficit next year, but there should have been a lot more belt-tightening in the years after that.

    He should have appointed a special prosecutor to investigate allegations of war crimes against the Bush administration.

    He should have vetoed the earmarks bill.

    He should have called for immediate reinstatement of the estate tax (which goes to 0% next year.)  I anticipate a large number of rich people ‘mysteriously’ dying next year.

    If he accomplishes nothing else in his first term, he’d better get health care done and it better result in something comparable to what the rest of the first world has.

    As an aside, why did people let neo-fascists start calling themselves neo-conservatives?  And why did people let neo-conservatives start calling themselves conservatives?  It’s time to call the party that embraces 13 of the 14 defining characteristics of fascism http://www.rense.com/general37… by their proper name.

  7. about the Obama way.  He has been saying one thing, then doing another for a long time.

    I agree.  This is just another way to cover himself and keep the illusion that he is a change agent.

    Good diary!

  8. The problem with what passes for political pragmatism today isn’t pragmatic at all.  Political pragmatism has always in the past meant choosing the most efficient, acceptable and least conflict-laden means of achieving one’s ends.  Today it seems to simply be a code word for the age-old power-monger’s game of “go along to get along”.  As I wrote a few days ago at Orange:

    Hasn’t it come to mean, in our political life, simply to follow the course of least resistance, to completely immerse oneself in the culture of “go along to get along”?  Hasn’t every vote for the Iraq War, from the initial War Resolution right up to the most recent funding, been justified in the name of “pragmatism”?  Well, please provide me a definition of pragmatic that successfully describes the Iraq War as a “pragmatic” venture.  What’s so damned pragmatic about the whole fiasco?  

    Again, we all were swept away with how “pragmatic” it is to eliminate any limits or restrictions of the ability of our intelligence services to spy on American citizens.  That argument for the pragmatism of scrapping the old FISA rules was made right here at Dailykos every bit as vociferously as it was on the Hannity show.  One of the greatest champions of how “pragmatic” it was to do so was Democratic Party intelligence expert Rep. Jane Harman.  Here’s me raising my glass to the cup of “pragmatism” she’s had to drink in that regard.

    Every month, a net of half a million Americans lose their jobs.  What was our government’s “pragmatic” response to millions of jobless Americans, losing their overpriced homes to foreclosure?  Shovel trillions of taxpayer dollars at the banks that started the economic collapse in the first place so that they could pay seven and eight-digit bonuses to their execs for their “job well done”, while the people without jobs, soon to be without homes or hope, got nada.  And that, once again, was widely touted, here as elsewhere, as the very epitome of “pragmatism”.

    The problem with modern “pragmatism” is that it isn’t pragmatic in the least unless the only objective of pragmatism is to retain political office for its own sake of personal ambition and partisan calculation and not to achieve any serviceable, meaningful ends.  I suppose to the average Hill staffer, getting a primo parking place is the essence of pragmatic action.  But outside the Beltway bubble, us benighted citizens tend to see that as something other than “pragmatism”.

  9. the net today and I just wanted to tell you that I think your essay here and mcjoans are the best on theis really important pivotal issue. It really is what it’s all about. I also think if it weren’t for the ‘far left’ in all it’s forms, this would not be happening and I actually think it’s for the best. Cards on the table is better then nothing on the table so Budhy is tight we need to keep it up.  

  10. at dkos and all the comments that are currently there.

    I have a question for you TomP and it comes from a place of trying really hard to understand the discord between progressives today. So I hope you’ll hear my thoughts and question in that light.

    My impression as of what I read is that right now perhaps 90% of the comments in this diary at dkos were either supportive of what you’ve written or took your position even stronger than you’ve stated it.

    I wonder if that is your read as well????

    If so, then I wonder what your take on that is given the questions you posed about posting this there in your tip jar.

    And if not, how do you see it?  

  11. …those who make little allowance for the unique challenges posed by terrorism, and who would almost never put national security over transparency.

    Like these guys?

  12. This is what happens when the political strategy guys moves into the White House.

    This is vintage Axelrod. The game has always been for Obama to appear to everyone as whatever they imagine they want him to be. He has been groomed to simultaneously occupy contradictory frames. It is what got him elected. It is proving a little harder to establish a record on this basis however. I wonder where this is all headed?

  13. … he says, and some people oppose President Obama no matter what he says. I propose a middle ground, supporting President Obama when he proposes to do something silly, or foolish, or Unconstitutional, and opposing President Obama when he proposes taking steps to rescue the future of the American economy or even industrial global society.

  14. no time for politics really, but this looks like a good read by andy worthington on Obama’s recent speech.

  15. Left = too hot

    Republicans = too cold

    Obama = Just right

Comments have been disabled.