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Associated Press/Photo by Gerald Herbert

We vs. them

To know this president, watch his pronouns

Issue: "On the road again," May 9, 2009

Presidential aide Dick Darman once said that to understand Ronald Reagan you had to realize he was neither a Republican nor a conservative. He was, Darman said, a populist. Consider some of the 40th president's better-known aphorisms:

"Government exists to protect us from each other. Where government has gone beyond its limits is in deciding to protect us from ourselves."

"Government's view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it."

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In an era of Cold War and Great Society programs run amok, Reagan identified the bully as the state. In any "us vs. them" drama he tended to side with "us." He saw himself in the object of the sentence where most folks could also see themselves, taking hits from the subjects-be they communists, bureaucrats, or air traffic controllers.

To understand Barack Obama at his 100-days-in-office milestone, you have to realize that he is perhaps not simply a Democrat or a liberal but an anti-populist. Consider the language of the 44th president's major speech on the economy, delivered April 14 at Georgetown University:

"I want to talk about what we've done, why we've done it, and what we have left to do."

"This is the situation, the downward spiral that we confronted on the day that we took office . . ."

"We will hold accountable those who are responsible, we'll force the necessary adjustments, we'll provide the support to clean up those bank balance sheets . . ."

If it's not clear who "we" is, then it's plain in a list of accomplishments-"we've already dramatically expanded early childhood education," "we are investing in innovative programs"-leading up to one of the speech's climactic moments: "We have been called to govern in extraordinary times. And that requires an extraordinary sense of responsibility-to ourselves, to the men and women who sent us here, to the many generations whose lives will be affected for good or for ill because of what we do here."

There were bright spots, like when the president said "we have to get serious about entitlement reform." But in the 213 uses of "we" I found in Obama's 45-minute speech, the plural pronoun is not referring to the students and faculty at Georgetown or "the men and women who sent us here." In almost every case, the pronoun refers to government in Washington; more precisely, this president and this Congress. They are the subject, the actor; the "us" out here in the countryside (or, say, on Wall Street or Main Street) is the object to be acted upon.

While populism alone is no virtue (think Hugo Chavez's Venezuela), an anti-populism that goes around cloaked in thin populist garb will ultimately prove uninspiring and divisive. It proposes and plans without meaning and perspective. It simulates conflicts-we vs. AIG-that miss fundamental problems.

One problem, noted in a February speech largely on social issues by Denver's Catholic archbishop Charles Chaput: "American consumer culture is a very powerful narcotic." And in a sermon by John Piper titled "What is the recession for?" a challenge: God intends in these economic times to "wake us up to the constant and desperate condition of the developing world where there is always and only recession of the worst kind."

Lost in the Obama lexicon is an everyman discussion of the virtues and vices of spending and lending-the crux of the current economic doom and gloom. Absent from this and other Obama speeches was a call to focus on what global recession means for poor countries, where tightening credit and a drop in exports lead hastily to malnutrition and death.

In perhaps the occasion's chief aggrandizement, the White House asked Georgetown to cover "all signs and symbols" where Obama spoke, sparking a controversy over a plywood board cut and painted to cover the Greek Christogram "IHS" above the stage. Obama went on to use religious imagery in his speech-Jesus' parable about the house on the rock, and an economic foundation built on "five pillars" in an allusion borrowed from Islam. The president apparently prefers a naked public square only "we" can fill.

If you have a question or comment for Mindy Belz, send it to mbelz@worldmag.com.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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