A Pregnant Per Se

A most interesting quote from President Barack Obama appeared in the news on Thursday.

Asked by the host of National Public Radio’s “Marketplace” program about Solyndra, the cylindrical solar panel manufacturer that received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal loans and was touted by the president as a “model” for the new “green economy,” Obama replied that “Obviously we wish Solyndra hadn’t gone bankrupt. Part of the reason they did was the Chinese were subsidizing their solar industry and flooding the market in ways Solyndra couldn’t compete. But understand, this was not our program per se.”

The statement is remarkable in part because it was prompted a tough question from someone at National Public Radio, a famously genteel news organization usually disinclined to bring up such embarrassing matters to this president. The question was framed as delicately as possible, delivered with that soothing public radio voice, and there was no derisive snort at the answer, but by NPR standards it was a remarkable act of lese majesty nonetheless. We wish the host much luck with his next employer.

It is obvious that Obama wishes Solyndra hadn’t gone bankrupt, given that even Jon Stewart couldn’t resist mocking him about it, and not at all surprising that he would blame the Chinese. What’s striking about the statement, however, is that “per se” affixed to the end.

“Per se” is one of those phrases that immediately arouses the suspicion of an alert listener. One usually hears it at the end of such sentences as “I don’t think you’re fat, per se,” or “I didn’t run over your dog, per se.” Some clarification of what the speaker means by “per se” should always be demanded, except apparently by members of the news media.

Obama helpfully explained that “Congress, Democrats and Republicans, put together a loan guarantee program because they understood, historically, when you get new industries, it’s easy to raise money for start ups, but when you want to take them to scale oftentimes there’s a lot of risk involved, and what the loan guarantee program was designed to do was help get start up companies to scale.” So he apparently means by “per se” that it was actually a program of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, and they should be the ones that even Jon Stewart is ridiculing. He might as well have noted that it was also a program of the Department of Energy, an agency established during the administration of Jimmy Carter, and that his already much-maligned predecessor should therefore bear the blame.

Such a “per se” obscures a few key points. The funding for the Solyndra loans came not from some long-ago act of Congress but from the stimulus package that Obama was once eager to claim as his program, a point that he reiterated when he gave a much publicized speech at the Solyndra factory in happier times and told the adoring crowd that “Through the Recovery Act, this company received loans and expanded its operations. This new factory is the result of those loans.” The funding was also approved by Obama’s appointees at the Department of Energy, over the objections of the career civil servants there, and had been wisely rejected by the previous administration. Also, while it might not have been his program, per se, those were definitely his campaign bundlers who were getting the loans.

There’s no wondering why Obama would want to distance himself from the Solyndra fiasco, but it remains a mystery why he stubbornly clings to the rest of his failed “green jobs” policies. Solyndra is but one of several heavily-funded “green” projects hat have gone bust, from Ener1 to Beacon Power to the Chevy Volt, and it’s going to take a lot of per se to revise that history.

— Bud Norman


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