How to Criticize Obama Without Making Crap Up

I tweeted the other day that the GOP convention had thus far offered an excellent critique of things Obama hasn’t actually said or done. Paul Ryan seemed to double down on that strategy last night, saying numerous things that were, at best, highly misleading. Poor Jonathan Bernstein blew a fuse when Ryan criticized Obama for opposing the debt commission recommendations that Ryan himself had voted against, and then later offered this explanation. Even Fox News called Ryan’s speech “deceiving” and “distracting” (if also “dazzling”).

But all this seemed to be part of a convention strategy of attacking an alternate reality Obama rather than the one who currently resides in the White House. A national convention is a rare opportunity to get your message out to voters unfiltered, and when you spend nearly all of it criticizing the government takeover of health care that didn’t happen, the apology tour that didn’t happen, the war on religion that didn’t happen, etc., and then make the entire convention’s theme (“We built it”) a response to an out-of-context quote that only works as a gaffe when you selectively edit the president’s speech, and when it seems the media is finally willing to call bullshit on this stuff, it makes you look bad. It makes it look like the real Obama must be a brilliant, flawless president — otherwise, why would you have to make stuff up about him?

Now, even the most ardent Obama fan (even Obama himself, I’ll bet) would admit to some flaws over the past 3 1/2 years. Can Republican speechwriters not come up with any? Let me just offer a few suggestions for those working on future speeches:

  • The economy is still not great! Would it be so hard to say something like, “Yes, Obama inherited a lot of challenges in 2008, but so did Reagan in 1980. By 1984, we had 7% economic growth. Where’s the Obama recovery?” I mean, tinker with the wording or whatever, but that’s actually true. Is that not enough?
  • Solyndra! Yes, it’s small potatoes — just the narrowest sliver of stimulus spending, which overall was well-spent and actually saw good results. But at least with Solyndra, the president took a gamble with taxpayer money and gambled wrong. There must be at least a handful of similar cases out there. Find them.
  • Federal judges. I know this is generally a left-wing critique of Obama, and most Republicans are thrilled that there are fewer Obama judges on the bench. But the fact that he hasn’t nominated more judges actually is a bit of a scandal. You can spin that to make it look irresponsible, can’t you?
  • You could attack ACA for what it actually does. It requires people to purchase something they might not have purchased. Yes, it’s constitutional, but it seems like you could frame it as inconsistent with the current conservative vision of liberty without blowing it up into some Marxist caricature. 

I just have to think there’s enough factual material out there to fill a 30-minute speech. The viewers on Fox (the primary audience for the convention) might be content with the fantasy world attacks, but if you want to speak to a larger audience, a bit more might be demanded of you.

[Cross-posted at Enik Rising]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.