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Responsibility

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By Michael D. Shear
Sunday, March 8, 2009

During his historic presidential campaign, Barack Obama assured the nation's voters that language is not just the stuff of speeches and empty rhetoric, that words matter. Six weeks into his presidency, the word that seems to matter most to Obama is "responsibility."

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The president has rarely offered a speech, introduced a new top adviser, or explained a policy proposal without invoking the words "responsible" or "responsibility." He used it three times in his inaugural address. He uttered it 11 times during his first speech to a joint session of Congress. And he said it nine times when he announced his plans to withdraw combat troops from Iraq in front of a crowd of Marines at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

But what does Obama mean when he says it? At times, he has used the word to signal a break with his predecessor; the federal budget proposal the administration released last month, for example, was emblazoned with "A New Era of Responsibility" on its cover, implying a rupture from some dissolute past. Obama also frequently attaches the word to otherwise controversial policy decisions on Iraq and the economy to reassure the public that his actions are reasonable and well thought out. "Our job is to govern with a sense of responsibility," he told a joint session of Congress on Feb. 24.

On other occasions, Obama has stressed individual responsibility, chiding African American men in his Fathers' Day speech last year for "abandoning their responsibilities" to their families. But he has also absconded with a word that carries a long conservative heritage -- recall how the Contract with America included the "Fiscal Responsibility Act" and the "Personal Responsibility Act" -- and given it a communal twist. Americans, he said in his inaugural address, "have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly."

It sounds great: Who doesn't want a responsible president, especially at a time of financial crisis and war? But over time, there is a risk that the word -- and the president who deploys it -- may suffer from its overuse, especially if "responsibility" moves from reassuring to lecturing, from calming to hectoring, turning this young new president into the father-knows-best figure that kids tune out, the one who insists on giving the responsibility speech before handing over the car keys on a Friday night.

Responsibility is a "contested concept," a term that can embody both liberal and conservative philosophies, said Berkeley linguist George Lakoff. The new president, Lakoff said, is trying to appeal to Republicans and Democrats by using a word that both sides claim as their own. (President Clinton pulled off the same feat with his welfare reform bill of 1996, titled the "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.")

Describing his housing plan, Obama says that it will be aimed only at "responsible homeowners." His stimulus plan "rewards responsibility" by directing tax revenues to the middle class. In the future, he says, corporate America will be forced to accept "its own responsibilities" to its workers and to the country.

When he talks about withdrawing from Iraq -- "the responsible removal of our combat brigades," as he has put it -- he uses the word to reassure the country that his actions are not headstrong or foolhardy. A senior adviser said that it communicates in a single word the nuances of the president's Iraq policy.

"It's our answer to the critics who say, 'are you just going to pull out of Iraq no matter what the conditions?' " he said. "It's kind of our one word to describe how we're going to leave, but in a way that protects our troops and protects our interests abroad."

It is precisely that usage that annoys conservatives, who see more sinister motives in Obama's responsibility mantra. It is, they say, a rhetorical sleight-of-hand that attempts to disguise liberal policies by making them sound moderate, reasonable and, well, responsible.

Peter Ferrara, a columnist for the American Spectator and director of budget and entitlement policy at the Institute for Policy Innovation, said that Obama is "trying to distract us from his ideology. When he's going to do something ideological, he uses the word 'responsible' to make it look like it's not." It riles conservatives, Ferrara said, to hear Obama talk about "fiscal responsibility" even as he advocates massive spending that they see as anything but responsible.

Ferrara summarizes Obama's message as "I'm not extreme, I'm responsible." After all, Ferrara asks, "What's more mainstream than being responsible?"


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