Adult Swim: A Republic is for Grown-Ups

“The middle class is still treading water, while those aspiring to reach the middle class are doing everything they can to keep from drowning.”

—President Barack Obama, 8 September 2010

Bad metaphors bring bad policies. During the Great Depression Americans were told that “the pump” had to be “primed.” Despite twelve years of pump-priming, F. D. R. did not bring America out of the Depression. Bipartisan tax cuts targeted against Truman’s “Fair Deal” did.

Roosevelt had also used the metaphor of “war,” but that analogy was brought to perfection in L. B. J.’s “war on poverty.” The image is problematic. Marines going into a battle, for example, want to know, as they are locking and loading, who the “bad guys” are, that is, whom to shoot. Who were the bad guys in the “war on poverty”? The impoverished? The rich? When President Obama took office a year and a half ago, the universal call from the Democrats was to pass a stimulus package in order to “jump start” economy. Is the American economy really an old jalopy whose owner would not dare go out for a drive without taking his jumper cables? Yet that image was invoked countless times without a trace of irony as the government was moving in to take over parts of the auto industry.

If bad political metaphors are not exposed, bad policies invariably follow. That is why one of the most important moments in the debate over independence was when Thomas Paine required the American colonists to rethink the idea of Britain as the “mother country.” Does a mother send an army to attack her young? Do not children eventually grow up? In deciding to become a republic, Americans chose not to have a permanent parent overseeing their every move and aspiration.

Having failed to “jump start” the economy, President Obama and the Democrats are moving onto a new metaphor. The people are “drowning.” Now this is an indisputably powerful image. Who would not throw a “life line” to a person who is drowning? Only the most unfeeling capitalist on his mega yacht (about the size of John Kerry’s) would let someone go down in the treacherous waters of the present economy. When examined closely, though, the analogy reveals more than the president knows.


First, the president speaks of “classes”: the middle class, those who want to be in the middle class, and so on. Though we use this terminology all the time, there is nothing in the U. S. Constitution about classes being singled out or owed anything. “Welfare” is connected to the modifier “general,” which means everyone. The Bill of Rights likewise protects the rights of either “the people” or “persons,” not classes. But in Obama’s swimming pool, people are permanently tethered together. Single persons do not move through the water according to individual ability or effort and are not encouraged to do so.

Second, these classes are never characterized as being swimmers, but rather drowners. When, according to Obama, have the American people ever been able to swim? That is a question some astute reporter should ask him during a rare press conference. During the Great Depression under F. D. R.? During Johnson’s war on poverty that was never won? Democrats never mention Carter’s abysmal one term, which is too like the present. Even the Clinton era is problematic since a Republican Congress forced the Empathizer-in-Chief to do things he was not naturally inclined to do. And certainly not during the horrible Bush years when unemployment was significantly lower than it is now. The fact is, to President Obama, America is and will always be a nation of drowners.

Finally, in Pool Obama the good swimmers are made to feel guilty about their talents and forced to stop swimming and help out all the drowners, whether that help is wanted or not. Michael Phelps must give up his Olympic career in order to become an instructor at the local Y for tots and for adults who never learned to swim because they were never required to. It is not enough for a good swimmer to inspire others to be good swimmers. Nor can the folks in the pool be counted on to teach each other out of love or profit. The officious lifeguard-in-chief must direct everything.

Unfortunately, the rhetoric of drowning does not hold water. Thirty years ago this November the nation elected a man who had actually been a lifeguard in his youth. He spent his summers watching over and saving lives. Yet this lifeguard in his political career looked upon people as individuals, not as belonging to restrictive classes, and upon the nation as a place of swimmers, in fact good swimmers. All they needed to be given was minimal instruction—by parents and parts of civil society, not the government—and a chance. Compare the Reagan economy to the Obama economy to decide whom you would prefer as the lifeguard—not the parent—of the republic.

Originally published at on September 16, 2010

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