Green Room

America held hostage to a rhetorical tic?

posted at 10:11 am on February 8, 2013 by

My friend Eric Ostermeier produces plenty of interesting analysis on politics at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.  You might say that he’s not hostage to a lack of data. In the school’s Smart Politics blog, Eric takes a look at a rhetorical tic that has become peculiar to Barack Obama — the figurative use of the term “hostage” to describe what has been normal political tussling:

In his first term, the president frequently trotted out a particular rhetorical device – one that not only advanced his agenda, but attempted to marginalize his political opponents.

In fact, Obama used this device more than any other president in history.

And what term has the president so heavily relied on as he frames the political debate?

The ‘H’ word.

A Smart Politics content analysis of the Public Papers of the Presidents finds that Barack Obama has used the word “hostage” as a metaphor more than any other president in U.S. history, and has spoken of figurative hostages vis-à-vis actual hostages at a rate 11 times higher than his predecessors.

In four years, Obama has used the “H word” in the figurative sense 70 times.  Between Teddy Roosevelt’s first such use and Gerald Ford, all American presidents used “hostage” figuratively a total of 55 times … over 75 years.

It’s oddly reminiscent of what Obama’s done with the national debt, no?  Be sure to read it all.

Update: Actually, it’s worse than I thought.  Eric e-mailed me when this post went live to explain that that final number:

That 55 number is the sum total of figurative and literal usage of the term during that 75-year span. The figurative total alone during that 75-year span is just 19. (And figurative total for all presidents prior to Obama is 123).


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It’s projection.

Red Cloud on February 8, 2013 at 10:14 AM

It’s not just “hostage.” Add in the “inherited (this mess).” It’s not so much that he doesn’t want to do things, or even take ownership of them, but that he’s going to do things that normally would be so unpopular that he has to do them reluctantly.

“We’re so held hostage by this mess we inherited that I reluctantly have to suspend the Constitution.”

rbj on February 8, 2013 at 10:43 AM

Still confused with the numbers here. In the update it says:

“And figurative total for all presidents prior to Obama is 123”.

But if T Roosevelt was the first to use it figuratively and TR through GWB used it figuratively 19 times, then 19 would be the total.

In any case, it’s obvious that Obimbo is a hostage to his rhetorical tics. He really is one of the laziest public speakers I’ve ever encountered. Pathetic.

SoRight on February 8, 2013 at 11:01 AM

SoRight: It makes more sense if you refer to the original blog post.

TR through Ford used “hostage” figuratively 19 times. Carter through G.W. Bush used “hostage” figuratively 104 times. (Clinton and Reagan were the most often to do so in that group, 37 times each.) Obama has used “hostage” figuratively 70 times.

Interestingly, Jimmy Carter only used the word “hostage” figuratively once during his presidency. Not surprisingly, he used the word literally 717 times, more than any other president.

J.S.K. on February 8, 2013 at 12:33 PM

I’ve used the word “turd” to refer to Mr. Obama more than I have with any previous president.

Mason on February 8, 2013 at 2:11 PM