It's 'Common Sense' or Is It? the Politics of Obama's New Favorite Phrase

Article excerpt

In these early days of his second term, President Obama isnt just promoting legislation on guns and immigration. The president and his surrogates are promoting common-sense proposals to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill, and a revamped, common- sense immigration system.

Indeed, it is rare in recent Obama administration pronouncements that the terms gun measures and immigration reform appear without the words common sense nearby.

At a campaign-style event on gun violence in Minneapolis on Monday, for instance, Mr. Obama used the phrase five times in a 15- minute speech.

I need everybody who's listening to keep the pressure on your member of Congress to do the right thing, Obama said at the Minneapolis Police Department Special Operations Center. Ask them if they support common-sense reforms like requiring universal background checks or restoring the ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

The use of common sense to woo the public is as old as the nation. In 1776, activist Thomas Paine wrote the best-selling pamphlet Common Sense to promote the idea of colonial independence from Britain and the term has been deployed regularly for political use ever since.

It has been a hallmark of populism on both the right and left, says Sophia Rosenfeld, a historian at the University of Virginia and author of Common Sense: A Political History. It was used to argue for abolition and also for slavery, for womens suffrage and against womens suffrage.

In the modern era, one way for an interest group to project a hint of populism is to put common sense in its name such as Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based watchdog group that tracks federal spending (and named Alaskas infamous Bridge to Nowhere). Some tea party groups, like Alabama's Common Sense Tea Party Patriots, have also incorporated the phrase into their titles.

Other Republicans have been prone to recent pleas for common sense as well. During the 2012 presidential campaign, GOP nominee Mitt Romney called for repeal of the Affordable Care Act and replacement with common-sense, patient centered reforms. In 2009, the House Republicans answer to Obamacare was a bill called the Common Sense Health Care Reform and Affordability Act.

So what does this common sense rhetorical flourish really convey? And does it work?

Its a way of asserting that an issue has been decided when in fact, just the opposite is the case and of depicting opponents as unreasonable ideologues, say experts on language and political rhetoric.

Political figures say something is just common sense when they want to imply that it's obvious to anyone whose thinking isn't fogged by ideology or strained by excessive cleverness, says Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley's School of Information. …

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