Published April 05, 2012
Methinks the vice president doth exaggerate too much.
“I think I can say . . . no president, and I would argue in the 20th century and including now the 21st century, has had as many serious problems which are cases of first-instance laid on his table,” Vice President Joe Biden recently told donors in Wisconsin.
“Franklin Roosevelt faced more dire consequences, but in a bizarre way it was more straightforward.”
Really? He believes that the issues on President Obama’s desk surpass those of Franklin Roosevelt and others?
Two problems puncture Biden’s balloon.
First, by using the words “first instance,” he implies that the top domestic issue facing America—the economy—is a first-time problem. While our culture and economy have changed since FDR’s time, the core symptom is the same.
Unemployment is the most tangible evidence of poor economic health. During the Great Depression, unemployment sickened the economy, inflating to nearly 25 percent, a quarter of the population. People did anything to survive. Texans, for example, ate armadillos—can you imagine a tougher chew?
During Obama’s term in office, unemployment swelled to 9.8 percent for three months in 2010. In February 2012, it was 8.3 percent, which isn’t healthy but better than what FDR faced from 15 to 25 percent.
My own family has been significantly affected by unemployment and under employment, so I have felt this economy personally. However, my view of history prohibits me from saying that this is a “first instance.” I have written books on the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have seen remnants of the Great Depression in my own family.
I remember walking into my grandmother’s bathroom when I was a child in the 1980s. Hanging on a rack was one leg or half of a pair of hosiery. When my grandmother got a run in one leg, she cut it off at the brief and then combined the two good legs of two separate pairs to save money. She was a child of the Great Depression, which affected her habits for decades. I know I don’t have it that bad—not yet.
The second problem is Biden’s assertion that Roosevelt’s challenges were more straightforward than Obama’s. I doubt FDR saw his options that way when he took Albert Einstein’s advice and authorized the Manhattan Project to beat the Germans at creating the atomic bomb.
Likewise Gerald Ford’s choices were unenviable and complex as he tried to get orphans and Americans out of Saigon when it fell to the North Vietnamese communists in 1975.
George Washington faced a dire situation in 1776. Yet he correctly guessed that the Hessians hired by the British would drink too much liquor on Christmas Eve. He crossed the Delaware River and launched a surprise attack, preserving the Continental Army from extinction and desertion.
In contrast President James Madison’s request to call up 15,000 men to defend Washington D.C. in case the British army attacked it in 1814 failed because the federal government lacked the authority to draft soldiers back then. Less than 4,000 volunteers came, and the victorious redcoats burned the White House and the U.S. Capitol. Fortunately for Madison, the people of Baltimore rallied and pushed the British out to sea, allowing our flag to forever fly over “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Day-to-day decision-making at the presidential level is always complex and rarely straightforward at the time. Hindsight makes history look simple because we know the outcome.
In the moment, leaders can only asses the situation, make strategic, principled or practical choices and hope for the best outcome. In his second inaugural address, FDR bet on optimism by quoting on old poet: "each age is a dream that is dying, or one that is coming to birth.”
Why did Biden make such a hyped historical comparison? He simply wants to get his guy elected. He used a bit of embellishment to do it. Both sides of the political aisle are guilty of exaggeration.
Hyperbole has long been part of our culture, especially advertising. The success of AMC’s "Mad Men" and the 1960s Madison Ave advertising world is iconic proof. Sometimes when you say something often enough, people will believe it—true or not
Sometimes when you are too close to the decision-making process, your sense of self-importance also increases. What better way to say your candidate deserves re-election than to hype the importance of the issues on his desk compared to his predecessors? The tactic seems to take flight on the surface. But it may not soar for long.
Ronald Reagan's speechwriter Peggy Noonan wrote in her book "On Speaking Well": “The most moving thing in a speech is always the logic. . . . A good case well argued and well said is inherently moving.”
Unfortunately, too much exaggeration without enough logic supporting it punctures the message, leaving the messenger full of hot air.
Jane Hampton Cook, is the author of "Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War," "What Does the President Look Like?" She is co-author of "Stories of Faith and Courage from the War in Iraq and Afghanistan" and others. She recently spoke about this topic on "Your World with Neil Cavuto."For more, visit her website: www.janecook.com.