The Decider Redux
06-24-2009
You may have noticed that at least once per presidential press conference, Barack Obama answers a question from the Washington press corps with the retort, “I’m the President of the United States.” Obama did it again at yesterday afternoon’s White House press conference with a twofer in response to a question by Chip Reid of CBS News about whether comments by Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham had goaded him into a sharper rebuke of the Iranian government. Here is the relevant portion of the transcript (the bold emphasis is mine):
 
THE PRESIDENT: Chip.
 
Q: Thank you, Mr. President. Following up on Major's question, some republicans on Capitol Hill -- John McCain and Lindsey Graham, for example -- have said that up to this point, your response on Iran has been timid and weak. Today, it sounded a lot stronger. It sounded like the kind of speech John McCain has been urging you to give, saying that those who stand up for justice are always on the right side of history, referring to an iron fist in Iran -- "deplore," "appalled," "outraged." Were you influenced at all by John McCain and Lindsey Graham accusing you of being timid and weak?
 
THE PRESIDENT: What do you think? (Laughter.) Look, the -- I think John McCain has genuine passion about many of these international issues, and I think that all of us share a belief that we want justice to prevail. But only I'm the President of the United States, and I've got responsibilities in making certain that we are continually advancing our national security interests and that we are not used as a tool to be exploited by other countries.
 
I mean, you guys must have seen the reports. They've got some of the comments that I've made being mistranslated in Iran, suggesting that I'm telling rioters to go out and riot some more. There are reports suggesting that the CIA is behind all this -- all of which are patently false. But it gives you a sense of the narrative that the Iranian government would love to play into. So the -- members of Congress, they've got their constitutional duties, and I'm sure they will carry them out in the way that they think is appropriate. I'm President of the United States, and I'll carry out my duties as I think are appropriate. All right?
 
I was ok with this particular rhetorical device early on, when Obama was still trying the office on for size, but now it makes him seem defensive. Pulling rank is the oldest presidential intimidation trick in the book, and Obama’s version serves essentially the same purpose as President Bush’s widely-mocked formulation, “I’m the decider.” It is a way for presidents to mark their turf and assert their paramount institutional authority, while putting other political actors in their subordinate place. Perhaps presidents view it as a means of rhetorically underscoring the gravity and solitary nature of whatever decision they are confronting at the time, but it strikes me as a bit gratuitous.


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