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Does President Obama rely on straw men to attack the GOP?
Echoing a common complaint from the Right, Paul Ryan accuses Obama of building up flimsy GOP arguments just to knock them down
 
Obama delivers his second inaugural address on Jan. 21 — and boy did it ruffle some feathers.
Obama delivers his second inaugural address on Jan. 21 — and boy did it ruffle some feathers. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

One of the enduring Republican complaints about President Obama is that for all his first-term talk of bipartisanship and taking the best ideas from both sides of the aisle, the president frequently argues for his own position by dismissively painting GOP policy ideas in the worst possible light. His second inaugural, a robust defense of liberalism, was no exception, according to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who got an implicit (and unwelcome) shout-out from Obama when the president said that programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid "do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great." 

"No one is suggesting that what we call our earned entitlements, entitlements you pay for like payroll taxes for Medicare and Social Security, are putting you in a taker category," Ryan said on Laura Ingraham's talk radio show Tuesday. "No one suggests that whatsoever." Conservatives merely "do not want to encourage a dependency culture," and are actually trying to save the programs from "going bankrupt."

When the president does kind of a switcheroo like that, what he's trying to say is that we are maligning these programs that people have earned throughout their working lives.... So it's kind of a convenient twist of terms to try and shadowbox a straw man in order to win an argument by default.... I understand the president will continue to use straw man arguments — affix views to your political adversaries they do not have in order to try and win an argument by default.

I'm just not seeing the "straw man" here, or any "switcheroo," says Steve Benen at MSNBC's Maddow Blog. Nobody is suggesting that Social Security recipients are takers? How about Paul Ryan in 2011, when he "explicitly warned of 'a society where the net majority of Americans are takers not makers,'" a category that numerically and linguistically must include social insurance program recipients. Or Paul Ryan in 2005, when he called Social Security "a collectivist system... a welfare transfer system" championed by Ted Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi, and other "collectivist, class-warfare-breathing demagogues." It's pretty clear that "Obama doesn't need a 'straw man'; he just needs Paul Ryan to keep talking."

No, Ryan is right, says Michael Gerson at The Washington Post. In Monday's address, "Obama constructed a raging bonfire of straw men." Unlike Abraham Lincoln, for whom "even the gravest national crimes involved shared fault," in Obama's telling "even the most commonplace policy disagreements indicate the bad faith of his opponents." This defaming of his GOP rivals will thrill partisan supporters, who've long urged him to drop "the pious balderdash of bipartisanship," but it will prevent him from taking "a leadership role in reforms that require both parties to trust each other and take simultaneous risks." 

Obama really "was unapologetic in offering an argument for his philosophical commitments and an explanation of the policies that naturally followed," says E.J. Dionne at The Washington Post. But so were Ronald Reagan and FDR in their inaugural addresses, to great effect. No doubt that some people will see Obama "as combative in his direct refutation of certain conservative ideas" — especially his calling-out of Ryan and his "radical individualism" — and argue that he "should have sought more lofty and non-partisan ground." But that's not fair to Obama, liberals, or even history. Thank goodness "neither Roosevelt nor Reagan gave in to such counsel of philosophical timidity."

For better or worse, Obama certainly didn't give a Kumbaya inaugural address, says David Frum at The Daily Beast. He gave a "damn the torpedoes" speech that rejected and repudiated the ideas espoused by Reagan and "boldly defended the social insurance state more forcefully than it has been defended by any president in my lifetime." He also called out Ryan and other opponents — and "yes, many of them deserve it" — but it was still a little jarring hearing Obama be so aggressive. I mean, trashing Republicans for "absolutism," name-calling, and relying on spectacle over policy?

Those are not words intended to invite Republican cooperation, but to slam Republican non-cooperation; not to conciliate, but to confront. They were fighting words, and they portend a second term in which the president is fully as willing to take the fight to his opponents as they have been to take the fight to him. [Daily Beast]

 

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