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Let Me Be Clear, Make No Mistake

June 16, 2010

As I listened to President Obama’s Oval Office address last evening, I was struck by his recurrent use of a familiar idiomatic expression. He often prefaces important points with the statement, “make no mistake.” His speeches have become so peppered with this interjection that it has almost acquired, at least for me, the air of a phonic tic.

Why does this bother me? For starters, as someone who admires and supports the President, it draws attention to the tendency of other people who neither trust the government nor support the President’s policies to question his confidence and competence to handle their problems. “Make no mistake,” is another way of saying “trust me, I know what I am talking about.” But too many people don’t trust him, and need a better reason to do so than his assurances and repeated statements that he is in control of the situation.

The President rarely has difficulty convincing people that he understands the situation. They often concede he has a clear vision of the future. But they often express profound reservations about his plan for getting from where we are to where he wants to take us. And too many people are not yet prepared to go along for the ride.

President Obama is not the first president to exhibit vague vocal stylings. When he was president, Bill Clinton was prone to saying, “Let me be clear,” when he wanted to make an important point. He had no reason to ask our permission to make a point, much less make it clearly, but his habit of doing so was far less annoying or cloying because it suggested he had our interests at heart. As we all came to find out, Bill Clinton was an expert at making connections with people, and had a very practical and direct approach to doing so.

Is it a mistake for President Obama to try to reassure us? By no means, no. But he should give us better reasons for backing his positions. That will require him to ask more of us as citizens, particularly when it comes to seeing our interests aligned with the national interest and his vision of the future. He can do this by making the small but specific tasks we can perform on behalf of our country a bigger part of his policy pitch.

If this is a war, as the President suggests, it will require sacrifices of us all. As such, I hoped he would have found a more appropriate metaphor. But then again he may be right that the only way we can win the war against al Qaeda is to see the Deepwater Horizon crisis as another frontier in a long and bitter campaign that has its origin in our own misadventures as well as the government’s when acting on our behalf.

We could begin making sacrifices by expecting a lot less of our leaders and more of ourselves. Let me be clear, as a nation we would make no mistake if we interpreted the situation in the Gulf of Mexico not as a question of Presidential action and corporate accountability, but rather as a call to individual action, a message to our nation to start taking specific and measurable steps to matching our energy appetites with our abilities and our resources.

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