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Obama’s Newspeak

By Alex Beam
Globe Staff / July 10, 2009
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It is inevitable in modern American politics that each new president inaugurates his own brand of bushwa - rubbish, lies, eyewash, whatever you choose to call it - that reminds one of nothing so much as the previous guy’s bushwa. Mr. Obama is no exception. Consider:

Soon after taking office, Obama & Co. rebranded George Bush’s “war on terror,’’ choosing to call it instead “overseas contingency operations.’’ There is a history here. In 2005, Bush’s people tried to rename the WOT, suggesting instead the delightfully Rumsfeldian “global struggle against violent extremism’’ (GSAVE!) or “the long war’’ (nice movie title) when discussing, well, the war on terror.

Those never caught on, and there is no reason to believe the jaw-cracking “overseas contingency operations’’ will either.

The White House knows that wars, of late, have been losing propositions. It is no accident that Obama’s new drug czar (“Czar’’ - so harsh! So Russian; perhaps the Club Med title “Gentle Organizer’’ would work better here) told the Wall Street Journal that “he wants to banish the idea that the United States is fighting ‘a war on drugs.’ ’’

Of course, it’s not like we are making peace with drugs either. Oh, never mind.

The Bush administration oversaw “bailouts’’ of its fat cat friends on Wall Street. The people-friendly Obama administration continues to throw money at its bankrupt pals, but prefers to talk about “rescuing’’ failed companies and the American economy. Neither phrase softens the blow to the taxpayers footing the bill, the Los Angeles Times noted sardonically: “We suggest they call the package an ‘iPod,’ because everyone will pay for an iPod.’’

With 10 percent unemployment creeping up, the Obama-ites better have their economic Newspeak ready. They do! As hundreds of thousands of Americans file new jobless claims each week, the administration brags about the vast numbers of jobs it has “created or saved.’’ All administrations claim to create jobs, even in periods of high unemployment, but economists are marveling at Obama’s new, bogus metric of jobs “saved.’’

“The expression ‘create or save,’ which has been used regularly by the President and his economic team, is an act of political genius,’’ a not-exactly-admiring Harvard economist Greg Mankiw writes on his blog. “You can measure how many jobs are created between two points in time. But there is no way to measure how many jobs are saved.’’

Yes, we can!

Everyone knows that healthcare reform will be a hard sell, so the administration has its neologisms at hand. The New York Times recently revealed that instead of “managed care,’’ the Obama-ites will be pushing the coinage “evidence-based care.’’ Likewise they plan to avoid the term “rationing,’’ but alas no usable circumlocution has yet emerged for a system that aims to, well, ration healthcare.

I have a not-terribly-original idea. Why don’t we call healthcare reform “iPhone’’? Nobody objects to paying for an iPhone, and people are more than happy to wait in line to buy them. Like Canada’s healthcare system, iPhones have a single service provider, AT&T. I’m phoning my congressman: Vote for the iPhone!

Remember signing statements? Those were the dastardly little postscripts George Bush attached to legislation that he didn’t completely approve of. Signing statements ignore the “fundamental principle’’ of the separation of powers, the American Bar Association huffed. On the campaign trail, candidate Obama was asked, “Do you promise not to use presidential [signing statements] to get your way?’’ “Yes,’’ he answered. “I taught the Constitution for 10 years, I believe in the Constitution, and I will obey the Constitution of the United States. We are not going to use signing statements as a way of doing an end run around Congress.’’

That was easy!

Less easy is explaining away his six signing statements so far, an impressive one-a-month clip. “Signing statements serve a legitimate function in our system,’’ Obama now says, “at least when based on well-founded constitutional objections.’’ Mr. President, meet my friend George Orwell, inventor of Newspeak, who memorably wrote, “Political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.’’

New bushwa same as the old bushwa? It’s a lot less different than we had been led to believe.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.