The War on Rhetoric

When politicians declare war on something, it’s not usually a good sign.

Jonathan Martin of Politico reports that Joe Biden declared “we’re at war,” when talking about the current economic crisis with a group of congressional leaders yesterday. Biden’s spokeswoman said that the vice president-elect was making the case that passing the stimulus bill will require members of Congress to join in the same spirit of cooperation that reigned just after the 9/11 attacks.

Politicians are fond of comparing things that aren’t war to war. It’s both an abuse of language and a rhetorical trick. We hear about war, and we think whatever bold actions this politician is asking us to take must be worth it because, well, it’s war. But a lot of the things presidents have declared war on are still with us.

Lyndon Johnson kicked off this construction in the modern age by declaring the war on poverty, but recently liberals have argued that this tendency to declare war is a Republican failing. Richard Nixon declared a war on cancer and a war on drugs—which Reagan then escalated by calling the drug scourge a “national security threat” in a 1986 executive order.

President Bush’s use of the phrase “war on terror” has created a “culture of fear in America,” argued Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security adviser, undermining “our ability to effectively confront the real challenges we face from fanatics who may use terrorism against us.”

Obama campaigned against Bush’s use of fear as the justifying language of public policy. But he has almost matched his running mate Biden in his use of dire language to describe the severity of the economic stakes. Perhaps they are taking their cue from FDR, the Democratic president who faced an even tougher economic mess and who sounded the war theme in his inaugural address: “I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis—broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.”

John Dickerson is posting this guest Chatterbox while Timothy Noah is at work on a larger project. He can be reached at