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-
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
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
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. …