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Rebutter in Chief

posted: 8.12.09 by Nick Carbone

This post by Steve Benen at the Washington Monthly blog features excerpts from a New Hampshire Town Hall conducted by President Obama.

It occurs to me, on reading Benen’s summary and having listened to some of Obama’s press conferences and speeches, that Obama’s legal training combined with his writing ability make him a master of rebutting the critiques of his policies and positions through explicit counter-arguments, no matter–in the case of the illogical and demagogic claim that the health plan under debate in Congress calls for “death camps”–how disingenuous and dishonest the criticism is.

Compare, for example, Obama’s response to the “death panel” claim to one of the most prominent assertions of that claim, Sarah Palin’s.

Palin wrote in Facebook:

The Democrats promise that a government health care system will reduce the cost of health care, but as the economist Thomas Sowell has pointed out, government health care will not reduce the cost; it will simply refuse to pay the cost. And who will suffer the most when they ration care? The sick, the elderly, and the disabled, of course. The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.

Health care by definition involves life and death decisions. Human rights and human dignity must be at the center of any health care discussion.

What is the logic of her paragraph? What is the train of thought? Can it be mapped by students? Are her claims fair? Is there a “death panel” clause in any of the proposed bills now in Congress?

What is the purpose of the final two sentences? They are statements no one will disagree with; is she using them to assert that the plans in Congress don’t care about dignity?

With those questions in mind, now look at Obama’s explicit rebuttal of this argument as represented by Palin. Obama said in New Hampshire:

“The rumor that’s been circulating a lot lately is this idea that somehow the House of Representatives voted for ‘death panels’ that will basically pull the plug on grandma because we’ve decided that we don’t — it’s too expensive to let her live anymore. And there are various — there are some variations on this theme. It turns out that I guess this arose out of a provision in one of the House bills that allowed Medicare to reimburse people for consultations about end-of-life care, setting up living wills, the availability of hospice, et cetera. So the intention of the members of Congress was to give people more information so that they could handle issues of end-of-life care when they’re ready, on their own terms. It wasn’t forcing anybody to do anything. This is I guess where the rumor came from.”The irony is that actually one of the chief sponsors of this bill originally was a Republican — then House member, now senator, named Johnny Isakson from Georgia — who very sensibly thought this is something that would expand people’s options. And somehow it’s gotten spun into this idea of ‘death panels.’ I am not in favor of that. So just I want to clear the air here.”

Obama first categorically rejects the charge that he wants “death panels,” and then looks to the bill in question, to the item in the bill his opponents have distorted, and explains its origins.

How does the use of logic and evidence in the two arguments compare? Which statement is more factually accurate?

Questions such as these make the current debate on health care in our country a useful one for studying and analyzing argument and rhetoric. It might also lead to a good discussion of civil discourse and how to tell it from inflammatory discourse and violent discourse.

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Categories: Argument, Assignment Idea, Genre, Popular Culture, Rhetorical Situation
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2 Responses to “Rebutter in Chief”

  1. Mike Burke, St Louis Community College Says:

    the argument-rebuttal here is an interesting case. While Obama’s response addresses the issues and sets the record straight, it ultimately made no difference at all in public perception of the Administration’s insurance reform (with which I agree for the most part). This may illustrate two other points–that pathos frequently trumps logos, and that emotional appeals can lead to almost impossible to change notions in the heads of the audience–so they are a complex, sometimes dangerous tool. No matter how much counter-argument, the argument that makes an emotional yet erroneous appeal can win out.
    This may also raise the issue of warrants–the ideas that exist in people’s heads, whether consciously or not, frequently cannot be changed with logic; rather, a counter-example based on an emotional appeal, might turn the audience around. This is something at which the president is not good. He can make all the rational arguments he can, but only about 20% of the audience posess the warrants that will accept them and change their minds.
    Finally, this may illustrate yet another argument issue–“winning” versus “being right.”
    When I teach second semester comp next term, I’ll use this example–thanks!

  2. Nick Carbone, B/SM Says:

    Really good points, all of them.

    I think it is in Real Communication, one of our non composition textbooks, that Dan O’Hair and Mary Wiemann note that people are very often _afraid_ to change their minds. And I think your observation about the emotional investment we make in our beliefs and fears are part of that.

    Once a meme melds with minds, it usually takes a more powerful emotion, one would hope an emotion backed by truth and fact, to dislodge it. Or, how does one break through the fear/distrust and get some one to accept the facts.