Something tells me the president is not a regular reader of the New Criterion. But perhaps, in between his regular servings of Jonathan Chait, Ezra Klein, and Josh Barro, he snuck a peek at the October issue of the conservative arts magazine. He might have scanned an essay by Harvey Mansfield, “Machiavelli’s Enterprise,” on the legacy of the first modern philosopher. It’s a legacy that very much includes the president.
In the essay, Mansfield discusses the Machiavellian discovery of “effectual truth.” What is effectual truth? In his 2007 Jefferson lecture, Mansfield put it this way: For Machiavelli, the effectual truth is the “truth shown in the outcome of his thought. The truth of words is in the result they produce or, more likely, fail to produce.” Consequences matter most. “Deeds are sovereign: When confronted by a necessity, Machiavelli advises, do not worry about justice, but act and the words to justify your action will come to you afterward.”
In recent weeks the world has woken up to the fact that President Obama is one of the most committed disciples of effectual truth telling in recent history. Time and again, when confronted by political necessity, he and his administration have told falsehoods in order to achieve their objectives. The fallout from the president’s lie that under Obamacare you can keep your health insurance is just the latest and most glaring example. The false explanation provided for the Benghazi attacks of September 11, 2012, and the misleading and occasionally fictional nature of the president’s memoir and campaign biography, are two more cases of effectual truth telling. The thinker whose teaching influences Barack Obama the most isn’t Frantz Fanon. It’s Niccolò Machiavelli.
The president now says that when he was barnstorming the country for his health care law, he was telling people, “If you have or had one of these plans before the Affordable Care Act came into law and you really liked that plan, what we said was you can keep it if it hasn’t changed since the law has passed.” What he actually said, though, was much simpler: If you like your health insurance, you can keep your health insurance. The Washington Free Beacon counted 36 times when he said exactly that. Politifact counted 37 times. No subordinate clauses. No mention of granddad.
The president and his administration have been caught in an untruth, in a prevarication, in a false statement. And there are no doubts as to motive: If Obama had actually said what he says he’s been saying, the chances of passing Obamacare into law, which were dicey to begin with, would have gotten much smaller. Most Americans already had health insurance prior to Obamacare, and the prospect of losing that insurance would have made them more reluctant to support the law, which they didn’t actually support all that much anyway. Omitting the consequences of the law for the individual insurance market was one of the most effective—i.e., effectual—ways to win support for the bill from congressional Democrats. The obstacles to Joe Biden’s “big f—ing deal” were necessities to be overcome. And President Obama overcame them by lying. The result—a national health insurance entitlement—makes the dishonesty worthwhile. Or at least it does for him.
What happened in Benghazi is more complicated because of competing bureaucratic interests and the inevitable fog of war that descends over every deadly conflict. But the underlying actions are the same as in the Obamacare example: protect the president to achieve a goal, in this case reelection. The attack on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi that left four Americans dead on the eleventh anniversary of 9/11 was a political problem for a candidate seeking reelection partly on the basis of his claim that, since Osama bin Laden had been killed, al Qaeda was on the wane. The well-coordinated, heavily armed assault on the consulate also drew attention to the dubious legacy of the NATO war against Muammar Qaddafi, and to President Obama’s failure to secure and protect whatever gains had been made in Libya.
That the Benghazi attack coincided with protests at U.S. embassies throughout the Greater Middle East, attributed to a mysterious and bizarre “anti-Islam” YouTube video, offered the administration an explanation for what happened that minimized al Qaeda. Thanks to Gregory Hicks, we know now that the government was aware of the al Qaeda connection before Susan Rice repeated the “spontaneous protest” story on all of the Sunday talk shows. But these revelations occurred after the president had been reelected, and long after his challenger had stumbled in his one faltering attempt to turn Benghazi into a political issue. The effectual truth had served its purpose once more.
By no means is Obama the first president to speak in effectual truths. But he may be the first one who’s been speaking in effectual truths since before he had an obvious political reason to do so. The president’s biographer, David Maraniss, revealed last year that there were more composite characters and invented scenes in Dreams from My Father (1995) than Obama has ever let on. The future president embellished his life to give intensity and significance to his experience of race. He created an effectual truth in order to dramatize his psychological relation to his black identity. There was no immediate electoral necessity for him to do so (though there may have been a financial one—who would want to return a book advance?). Still, Obama may have crafted his tale of racial self-discovery with an eye toward future battles in electoral politics in Chicago. Political considerations certainly played a part in his alliance with Reverend Jeremiah Wright—an alliance he dropped at the first sign of trouble in 2008 by telling the effectual truth that he hadn’t been aware of Wright’s hateful rhetoric and ideas.
“Honest administrations are all alike, but each dishonest administration is dishonest in its own way,” Michael Kinsley wrote in 2002. “Actually, there are no honest administrations. But each presidency does bring its own unique style to the task of deceiving the citizenry. And at least you can derive some truths about a president from the way he chooses to lie to you.”
What does Obama’s use of the effectual truth tell us about him? It tells us that his ambition is staggering, that he’s prepared to lie to achieve his goals, that dishonesty can expand the welfare state and win you elections. Obama’s career has been an exemplar of the power of Machiavellian politics. But lately it has also revealed the weaknesses and limits of such politics. The effectual truth may only take you so far. That’s a lesson Obama may have learned earlier, if only he read conservative magazines.