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Polarizing president

Politics | Barack Obama’s trouble with the truth is devastating public trust

Issue: "The wonder of life," Jan. 25, 2014

If Barack Obama is not the most polarizing political figure of our lifetime, it’s hard to think who might challenge him for the title. Take a look again at the blue-and-red electoral map from November a year ago. Take away a tiny handful of states where the voting was close—Florida, Virginia, Ohio. Nearly all the rest are emphatically on one side or the other. You couldn’t get much bluer, for example, than California, or much redder than Texas.

If I heard it once during the 2012 campaign, I heard it a hundred times: Your choice this year, dear voter, is a stark contrast between two mutually exclusive views of government. There’s little overlap here, analysts stressed. You can’t have a little of both. You’ve got to pick one way or the other.

But if that’s the way things really are, let’s not complain! If we in fact live in a country where we can repeatedly and predictably enjoy a robust and honest debate over the kind of government we want to have, let’s be thankful to God for such openness. I’m old enough now to have been emotionally involved in 16 presidential election cycles (starting with Eisenhower and Stevenson in 1952)—during which I considered myself a “winner” nine times and a “loser” seven times. That’s a pretty good balance, achieved through peaceful elections without bloodshed—and available to only a small proportion of the world’s population.

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If, as I say, that’s the way things really are. If, as I say, we can enjoy a robust and honest debate.

The fact is, though, that things simply aren’t these days the way they used to be. Turns out that the last round of presidential elections was based on anything but honest premises. Explicit lies—repeated dozens of times by our incumbent president about his healthcare law, the Benghazi attack, and other things—were the foundation stones of his campaign for re-election.

Yes, I’m well aware that skeptics and cynics—and even fair-minded observers—will tell you that dishonesty is par for the course in presidential elections, and indeed in most political contexts. And I will not deny the charge in a broad application.

And much more specifically, I know how quickly Mr. Obama’s political opponents point to what they call an equally heinous case of dishonesty with the claim by former President George W. Bush that weapons of mass destruction were present in Iraq a dozen years ago. But even if it were true, that would be no justification for more lying. Yet that charge is itself demonstrably false—and especially so because of the long list of the Bush opponents at the time who publically joined him in the assertion. Mistaken, perhaps. But deliberately lying? No way does the charge make common sense.

But the dishonesty that has characterized the current presidency is of a different order. It is purposeful, brazen, calculated, pervasive, and pernicious. It corrodes the whole process of public discourse and debate.

I’ve been asking my peers about their own impression of things—comparing the present state of things to what they remember from the last 50 years. In perhaps a couple of dozen informal inquiries, I have yet to find a single person, roughly my age, who remembers watching public trust being devastated the way it has been in recent months.

“Just imagine,” one friend pointed out, “what would happen if a university president got caught lying in such a manner. Or the executive of a missions or relief organization. Or a corporation executive—especially let’s say in an airline, where trust is all-important. They’d all be sent packing.” Another acquaintance noted how morale in any of those entities would be shot through and through if the top man were similarly demonstrated to be a serial liar.

In our public debate, we’ve had polarizing disagreements before. We’ve had distortion of the facts and fudging of the truth. It’s telling, though, when thoughtful people look back over their lifetimes and can’t remember ever seeing such a blatant assault on integrity in public office.

Polarizing president? Yes—but not nearly so much because of the substance of his positions as because of his reckless disregard for simply telling the truth.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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