Why Can’t Obama and Romney Speak the Same Language?

Politics is a language game, above all else. Candidates play up their strengths, downplay their weaknesses, evade tough questions, and slap the other guy around at any opportunity. The 2012 Presidential election is no exception, and has already produced its share of juicy rhetoric. Obama and Romney each tout their own euphemisms and catchphrases like “change” while denouncing their opponents with the most unspeakable of taboos like “un-American.” By this point in the race, the campaigns’ buzzwords have been choicely selected from political history, screened by party leaders, revised by voter polls and media criticism, and now practically codified into campaign dictionaries. The Associated Press’s Sharon Cohen notes words to watch for on the 2012 election trail:

Fair shot or economic freedom? The nation’s welfare or class warfare? You’re-on-your-own economics or the heavy hand of government?

The president has tried to cast himself as the champion of the middle class. He claims Romney wants to perpetuate failed economic policies that favor the rich and privileged business interests over everyday workers. Obama regularly denounces tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires and frequently talks about the importance of “playing by the rules.”

Romney has portrayed himself as Mr. Turnaround, the hands-on guy whose 25 years in the private sector give him the ideal resume to revive an economy he contends has gone from bad to worse under the president. His speeches are filled with patriotic references to the Founding Fathers and regular mentions of “free enterprise” and “prosperity.”

“In a lot of ways, it’s the standard party line — Democrat, working-class rhetoric, Republican, business class,” says Mitchell McKinney, professor of communication at the University of Missouri.

“Both are playing to the base. … Obama has to address those disparities in the economy without seeming that he is anti-business, anti-capitalist. … Romney wants to tout the making of money and successful working of the capitalist system but not highlight in any way the downside. In that sense they both have fine lines they’re trying to walk.” [1]

Cohen dissects two speeches made on the road that best encompass each candidate’s rhetorical tendencies. For Romney, the catchphrase is “freedom,” a word he used 29 times in his March 19 speech at the University of Chicago, a notorious bastion of free-market economics [2]. Cohen writes:

“When he talks about economic freedom and saving the country — the religious is entwined with the economic,” says David Frank, a University of Oregon professor and expert on presidential rhetoric. “It’s a very powerful message … the government should not intervene in the free market, one ruled by individuals who are successful because of God’s grace.”

The message also echoes former President Ronald Reagan, who famously declared that government is the problem, not the solution.

For Obama, the word is “fair,” which he used 15 times in a December speech in Osawatomie, Kansas [3]. The President’s primary uses of the word are “fair shot,” “fair share,” and “fair play,” which echo FDR’s New Deal rhetoric. Cohen writes:

A central campaign theme for Obama. His belief that the government has a role in creating conditions for prosperity, that the growing income gap is hazardous to the nation and the recipe for a stable middle class is to give everyone a fair chance to succeed…

“He really wants to hit the equality of opportunity, the fairness argument that has traditionally worked very well for Democrats,” says John Murphy, a University of Illinois associate professor specializing in presidential rhetoric. “Think way back to the New Deal, the Fair Deal, those were all slogans based on, `Hey, everybody gets an equal shot.’”

“Freedom” and “fair” are ridiculously loaded terms that carry hundreds of years of cultural and political baggage. Yet, campaigns on both sides of the aisle regularly use them as if they mean the same thing to everybody in an attempt to appeal broadly to Americans’ core values. Hey, they sure do sound like things I want. As November nears, do your research, know your stand on key issues, and you’ll start to see through the haze of party rhetoric.


[1] “Fair Shot or Freedom? Words Define Campaign 2012” by Sharon Cohen, The Associated Press
[2] Mitt Romney’s March economic speech
[3] Barack Obama’s December economic speech

Image Credit: Bosch Fawstin

  • maizie45

    Neat picture; the artist has some other great work here: http://fawstin.blogspot.com/2012/02/obamaromney-2012.html?m=0

    • http://theairspace.net/ Blake J. Graham

       @maizie45 When we found the image, it was as is and shared heavily on different forums and sites in its current form. Thank you for providing us with the artist’s information.

  • Eloar

    You should give credit to the author of the workBosch Fawstin fawstin.blogspot.com 

  • Reg

    I missed the part in that article where you explain why you removed the signature of the artist from the prominent image at the top of the page. *cough* http://fawstin.blogspot.com *cough*.

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