Obama's Libya Doctrine Vague Amid False Choices

One of President Obama's favorite rhetorical devices is to establish the false choices on policy, laying out extreme positions on both the left and the right and placing himself at the sensible center. In his Libya address, he again used the device to explain the policy's complexities. Finding the "Obama Doctrine" political analysts are looking for is proving difficult.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This week, President Obama laid out his philosophy about military involvement in Libya. Some pundits applauded the speech as a triumph. Others said it fell short. President Obama himself might argue...

President BARACK OBAMA: And much of the debate in Washington has put forward a false choice when it comes to Libya.

SIMON: The false choice is one of President Obama's favorite rhetorical tools. NPR's Ari Shapiro explores why.

ARI SHAPIRO: To hear President Obama describe it, America is inundated with false choices. They lurk in national security debates.

Pres. OBAMA: Let's reject the false choice between protecting our people and upholding our values.

SHAPIRO: They burrow into discussions about the economy.

Pres. OBAMA: Those who claim we have to choose between paying down our deficits on the one hand, and investing in job creation and economic growth on the other.

SHAPIRO: False choices even nest in foreign affairs.

Pres. OBAMA: There's long been attention between those who describe themselves as realists or idealists.

SHAPIRO: President Obama has one answer for all those extremes.

Pres. OBAMA: I reject these choices. That is a false choice. You and I know this is false choice.

SHAPIRO: So why does he keep using this phrase, and does it work? Well, as the president himself might lay out the argument...

Pres. OBAMA: On the one hand...

SHAPIRO: ...some people argue that it's an authentic expression of maturity and nuance. Dan Pfeiffer is the White House communications director.

Mr. DAN PFEIFFER (White House Communications Director): You could take these very complicated issues and boil them down into hackneyed cliches or tropes, and maybe that would help us in the immediate aftermath of the speech when cable talkers - who are drawn to cliches and tropes -are analyzing the speech. But the reality is the president has always believed the American people need to be treated like adults, and he wants to tell what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.

SHAPIRO: Then again, as President Obama might put it...

Pres. OBAMA: Those who claim...

SHAPIRO: ...it's nothing more than a convenient rhetorical trick.

Ms. MARY KATE CARY (Speechwriter for George H.W. Bush): It's tempting for the speaker to distort the two extremes in such a way that it makes the critics angry and invites a response like, well, that isn't at all what I said.

SHAPIRO: Mary Kate Cary was a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, and she says the extremes that Mr. Obama calls false choices may be truly fictitious. For example, cutting deficits versus creating jobs.

Ms. CARY: Nobody is saying we're going to cut the deficit and ruin the economy, and there's nobody saying we're not going to touch the deficit at all. So there's temptation to make the other two sides look more extreme than they really are.

SHAPIRO: So are false choices a sign of maturity, or a distortion of reality? Well, as the president might say...

Pres. OBAMA: We do not have to choose.

Ms. NEERA TANDEN (Chief Operating Officer, Center for American Progress): For both supporters of the President, and his opponents, there are times where people wish he would draw more lines in the sand.

SHAPIRO: Neera Tanden of the liberal Center for American Progress thinks the false choices framework reflects the president's background as a law professor, and that can backfire.

Ms. TANDEN: If it was actually a firebrand, it would be easier to draw lines in the sand, and you, you know, you would have clear right and wrong.

SHAPIRO: People sometimes to struggle to figure out exactly what President Obama stands for. Why the U.S. intervened in Libya for example, and not in other countries. That's a stark contrast with his predecessor.

Early in the Bush administration many people liked the certainty of the decider, dead or alive and with us or against us were clear. They had an appeal. But over time, President Bush's certainty started to look like stubbornness, and in 2004, American's met an alternative.

Pres. OBAMA: The pundits — the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states. Red states for Republican, blue state for Democrat. But I've got news for them too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states.

SHAPIRO: That contrast with his predecessor helped Senator Obama become President Obama. And for now, the White House is filled with shades of gray.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington

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