President Obama's Immigration Sophistry: Part 2

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on August 14, 2013

Sophistry (soph·ist·ry)
1: subtly deceptive reasoning or argumentation.

President Obama is an artful communicator, but like some other smart, modern presidents (Bill Clinton comes to mind), not a particularly direct or truthful one.

Mr. Clinton was extremely good at asserting rhetorical common ground that his polices belied. He said, "The Era of Big Government is over" in his State of the Union speech that listed the many new programs he was proposing. He took a very centrist public position of making abortion "safe, legal, and rare" while his actual polices ensured the first two at the expense of the third. And his approach to affirmative action — "mend it don't end it" — led to a somewhat artful, ironic, and paradoxical policy fix that would allow Caucasians to apply for affirmative action status, too, if they could provide they were victims of discrimination.

President Obama's sly rhetorical skills lie elsewhere, in the domain of partial truths that obscure the larger, more accurate picture. That skill was visibly on display in his recent press conference when he was asked a question about the current immigration debate.

His immigration observations on the Senate bill were preceded by a tendentious, racially framed, softball question asked by Scott Horsley of NPR:

Q: Thank you, Mr. President. Part of the political logic behind immigration reform was the strong showing by Latino voters last November. That doesn't seem to resonate with a lot of House Republicans who represent overwhelmingly white districts. What other political leverage can you bring to bear to help move a bill in the House?

The Inconclusive Comparative

One of the president's favorite rhetorical slight of hands is making use of parts of speech (objects of the preposition, adjectives, and adverbs) that imply something is "better", "unprecedented", "stronger", and so on without: (1) explaining what the metric really represents, (2) how and to what degree it really differs from the past, and most importantly (3) whether it really meets the basic criterion of solving the problem at hand.

So for example, from the press conference:

Well, we've got an economic report that shows that our economy would be a trillion dollars stronger if we get immigration reform done.

The president says he has a report, in the singular. That means one. Who did it, what measures were used, and how does it stack up against other reports is not addressed.

We've got evidence that our housing market would be stronger if immigrants are in a situation in which, having paid a fine, having paid back taxes, that they now have the ability to actually enter into the housing market.

"Stronger" is an elastic word. Would the housing market be stronger because of the 11.5 million mainly less-educated and low-skilled workers that would receive legalization? Would their likely economic status require lowering requirements for housing assistance or government loans? Would that make the market stronger? Would the housing recovery become "stronger" if policies other than further immigration were pursued?

We've got strong evidence that our technological and research edge would be better if we get immigration reform done.

If you increase the number of high-level STEM graduates who can become immigrants, this would almost certainly appear to be true to some degree. However, some studies suggest that there is not a dearth of American science and engineering students, but rather that their financial incentives lie in other fields. At any rate, if foreign or foreign American-trained STEM students are needed, couldn't that be handled within the confines of a smaller, more targeted immigration bill?

We know that the Senate bill strengthens border security, puts unprecedented resources on top of the unprecedented resources I've already put into border security.

Let us grant some of his premises. In some ways the bill does "strengthen" the border. However, does it do so enough to dramatically reduce illegal border crossings? And what of being able to track and expel people who overstay their visas? That, too, is a form of border crossing the president doesn't mention.

Let us also grant that the president has put "unprecedented resources" into border security. Compared to what? Compared to whom, and in what areas, immigration per se or national security?

These equivocal, unanchored comparisons are true to some degree, but never as far as they are represented to go.

They give the impression of being factually based, so long as you don't stop to think or if you don't more know about the information they purport to fairly present.

The inconclusive comparative is not the only arrow in the president's rhetorical arsenal. He is also a master of political demagoguery and an avid devotee of straw man arguments.

Next: The President's Immigration Villains: Part 1