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Pop quiz: When President Obama uses the phrase “let me be clear,” it means:
a) Pencils up: This is the takeaway.
b) What I’ve said doesn’t mean what you might fear it means – or what my opponents will tell you it means.
c) I am not going to get rolled on this one.
d) All of the above, and then some.
“Let me be clear.”
In the first six months of Obama’s presidency, this simple sentence has gone from political pet phrase to full-on rhetorical signature, appearing (along with its variants “let’s be clear” and “I want to be clear”) scores of times in the commander in chief’s pre-written and extemporaneous remarks – sometimes more than once in a given speech.
But what does he mean when he says it? And why does the president who made “transparency” a national buzzword use it so often?
It depends on whom you ask.
“All speakers have verbal tics – habits they repeat, usually without even consciousness,” says former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum, who believes the president’s repeated use of the phrase is just that – a verbal twitch.
But the phrase is not simply an overbred “um” – it serves a function. At its most basic level, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, “It’s a pointing phrase. It’s a phrase that says, ‘What I’m about to tell you is important.’” And not coincidentally, notes Jamieson, when the president says it, “What’s your natural response if you’re a reporter? Sound bite.”
Agrees David Kusnet, a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton: “If you’re going to say something you want the audience to remember, you have to say something before it.” He notes that the bridge to FDR’s famous “fear itself” line was “So first of all, let me assert my firm belief that…” – a kind of era-appropriate version of the same idea.
The phrase “let me clear” is hardly unique to Obama, even among presidents. Ronald Reagan used it as a warning: “Let me be clear—if Congress passes legislation that endangers our arms reductions, or undermines our national defense, I will have no choice—I will veto it.” Clinton favored its use for thorny issues, although he generally preferred “make no mistake about it.” (Obama sometimes uses the short form, “make no mistake.”)
Critics on both the right and the left have flagged the phrase as a sign that Obama is being disingenuous, a la President Nixon’s favored iteration, “Let me make one thing perfectly clear.”
“‘Let me be clear,’ says Obama, and, as with George Bush's rapid eye movements when he was telling a lie, you know the forty-fourth president is on the brink of some absurdity,” opined The Nation’s Alexander Cockburn earlier this month. Or as one Salon.com commenter put it: “Whenever I hear Obama say ‘let me be clear,’ I know what he is about to say is full of s—-.”
But this is too glib of a gloss.
If Clinton peppered his speeches with the phrase, Obama salts his liberally with it – and not at random. When taken together, the statements that have followed it read like the Cliff’s Notes to the first six months of the administration, with the president carefully staking out positions both foreign and domestic with an eye toward controlling the message and bringing along the skeptics in the crowd.
In foreign affairs, he uses the phrase to assert policy, to take and assign responsibility, and to warn against mistaking diplomacy for weakness, sometimes amassing multiple “clear” statements over time to achieve a complex and highly specific result:
“Let me be clear: America is committed to Israel's security. And we will always support Israel's right to defend itself against legitimate threats."
“But let me be clear: The United States has made a lasting commitment to defeat al Qaeda, but also to support the democratically elected sovereign governments of both Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
“And I want to be clear: We cannot turn a blind eye to the corruption that causes Afghans to lose faith in their own leaders.”
At home, the president frequently uses the line not only to get his audience’s attention, but also to anticipate his opponents, and to steer the public’s interpretation of his words:
“Now I want to be very clear: While we are making important progress towards fiscal responsibility this year in this budget, this is just the beginning.
“…so let me be clear: If you like your doctor or health care provider, you can keep them. If you like your health care plan, you can keep that too.
“But let me be clear: The choice we face is not between some oppressive government-run economy or a chaotic and unforgiving capitalism.”
“Let me be clear: The United States government has no interest in running GM. We have no intention of running GM.
(The method is not entirely foolproof; the Fox News web headline on the GM story read, “Obama Says He Has 'No Intention' of Running General Motors).
“One of the knocks on Obama during the campaign was that he kind of speaks in platitudes, these kind of feel-good principles,” notes Thomas E. Nelson, an associate professor of political science at Ohio State University who studies political communication. When he says “let me be clear,” Nelson says, the president is “conveying determination, he’s combating this sort of platitude criticism, and he’s signaling that this is the take-home point and to ignore anything that appears to diverge from that.”
Although she doubts it is deliberate on the part of the president or his speechwriters, Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of “The Argument Culture,” sees the phrase as potentially working on three levels:
“I’m pointing to the point I want you to listen to, I’m pointing to the interpretation that I want you to have, and maybe there’s something there on the meta level, where I’m saying something about me as a person, that I’m being clear,” she says.
That third level in Obama’s case is one that ties into his public image as a foe of smoke and murk, the enemy of Beltway business as usual.
Says Jamieson: “It’s a way of saying, I’m a candid person. This is who I am” – something she says signals back to the president’s campaign themes of open, honest government.
Whether it is conscious or not is not even necessarily important. Any time people engage in a habitual rhetorical move, notes Jamieson, “it tells you something.”
So if Clinton’s frequent use of “make no mistake about it” suggested an underlying sense on the part of the Rhodes Scholar that his audience wasn’t always smart enough for him – and Bush’s regular extemporaneous use of the phrases “I fully understand” and “I’m fully aware” were on some level rebutting the rap that he didn’t and he wasn’t -- Obama’s constant repetition of the phrase “let me be clear” is perhaps a tell that he’s greatly concerned with his own…transparency – and defending the public perception thereof.
“With Nixon, “clear” was “You can trust me,” says Kusnet. “With Obama, it’s, “I’m going to speak clearly, to cut through the political fog.”
And above all else, he wants to make sure we’re clear on that.