Politicians are known to use certain words to engender specific feelings or responses. They say ‘family’ or ‘faith’ to build an emotional connection. They speak against ‘big business’ or ‘big government’ to show that they’re advocating for average Americans. They mention ‘supporting the troops’ or ‘freedom’ to show that they’re patriotic. However, one term always seems to evoke a negative response, especially on the conservative right: Obama.
As the Iowa Caucus, draws nearer Republican candidates are wont to differentiate themselves, or they will most likely drop out in the following days. They want to contrast themselves from their Republican primary opponents, as over 50% of GOP voters believe there are too many candidates in the field. But more importantly they want to distance themselves from President Obama’s legacy, as 8 in 10 of Republican voters disapprove of Obama’s performance.
The need to distance themselves from President Obama has manifested itself in Republican candidates utilizing his name with exclusively negative connotations. Beginning with the August 6th GOP debate in Cleveland, OH, I’ve tallied how many times the Republican candidates mentioned President Obama’s name in reference to something negative, or an ‘O-Bomb’. My parameters for what counts as an O-Bomb were as follows:
- Every explicit naming of the President counts as one O-Bomb. (i.e.: “President Obama”, “Obamacare”, “the Obama administration”, “the Obama economy”)
- Every non-named reference to the President as a proper noun or as the current president counts as one O-Bomb. (i.e.: “the/this president” or “we have a president who” count, but “when I’m president” or “we need a president who” do not)
- More than one reference to or explicit naming of the President within one sentence only counts as one O-Bomb. (i.e.: “In this administration, every weapon system has been gutted, in this administration, the force levels are going down to a level where we can’t even project force,” is only one O-Bomb)
- For partisan fairness, any specific praise of the President or his initiatives takes away one O-Bomb. (Ex: “making history as our first African-American President”, “admire the President’s leadership”) HINT: There are none.
- In consideration of brevity, I’ve only tallied the O-Bombs for candidates occupying the main debate stage. The undercard stage, while relevant, was unlikely to yield results relevant to my tallying.
This examination of the Republican Presidential field not only inundated me with some of the most outlandish talking points ever heard, it awakened me to the dearth of viable policy options among them, and to the still-remaining animus against President Obama. Here were my biggest findings:
The Top O-Bomb Dropper is a Tea Party Darling
With 62 mentions (an average of 11 per debate) of President Obama and his administration, Ted Cruz led the way among the GOP Presidential hopefuls. This is unsurprising, given the conditions by which Cruz came to power in his state of Texas, and his Congressional track record against President Obama.
From his filibuster to defund the Affordable Care Act in 2013, to his 2014 assertion that President Obama was “openly desirous to destroy the Constitution and this Republic,” to his 2015 statement that the Iranian nuclear deal made the Obama administration “the world’s leading financier of radical Islamic terrorism,”
Cruz is as consistent in his negativity about Obama as his Tea Party base. Whether or not he is pandering, his unabashed bashing of the President speaks to who elected him, and their vision for America. Polling numbers reflect their support for it. His numbers were very flat until the December 15th debate when he dropped a record 23 O-Bombs.
The 2nd Top O-Bomb Dropper is Seen as an Obama Ally
Despite not participating in the 4th debate, Chris Christie chimed in second, dropping 54 O-Bombs, leaving him at 10.8 mentions per debate. His 2nd-place ranking is significant because it marks a huge effort to distance himself from what was an easy target for his Republican foes: his post-Hurricane Sandy embrace with Obama.
In the August 6th debate, Rand Paul attacked Christie for the hug saying “If you want to give him a big hug again, go right ahead”. News articles have declared his connection with the President “political suicide” while other candidates have opportunistically jumped on the chance encounter. Christie’s dropping of O-Bombs is as wise a decision as he can muster, given the unlikelihood of his nomination by the GOP.
At the same time, Christie cannot afford to alienate the left-leaning conservative constituency (both in his state and nationwide) that doesn’t dislike President Obama as much as he purports to. During the January 14th debate, in the the same sentence, Christie called President Obama a “petulant child” but then proceeded to say that his (and the other GOP candidates’) problem wasn’t with him, but with his policies. Will the strategy work? Who knows?
The One Place Donald Trump isn’t Leading: O-Bombs
One would expect Donald Trump to have mentioned President Obama’s name the most out of the GOP field, given his bombastic and incendiary speaking style. However, out of the nine candidates he is fifth in O-Bombs. That decision might very well be the one that vaults him to the GOP nomination come this July. Donald Trump’s appeal rests on the fact that he’s not a politician and that he speaks to the anger many conservative Americans have with the country’s direction. And though that anger is usually directed at President Obama, Trump knows he’s not going to O-Bomb his way into the Presidency. Americans want fresh ideas.
So instead of calling the President out by name, he uses a lot of rhetoric that speaks to the country’s supposedly shaky future and his unassailable ability to right the course. During every debate, he’s used phrases like “greatness” as his goal and referred to our being “beaten on every front economically”. Rather than blame Obama effusively like his opponents, he simply tells the viewer that things are messed up, and he’s the one to fix it. It’s a bravado that eschews the conventional GOP wisdom and completely took me for surprise while I analyzed the debate transcripts.
No One’s Given an Alternative to Obamacare
One of the final things I wanted to examine was the current GOP candidates had a substantive alternative to the Affordable Care Act. There have been more than 60 attempts to appeal the President’s health care reform. Given the GOP’s overwhelming dislike of it, I thought at least one of the candidates would have a substantive plan for how to move forward on healthcare.
Unfortunately, there weren’t any plans. In the first debate, when asked about Obamacare, Jeb Bush proposed replacing it “with something that doesn’t suppress wages and kill jobs”. That same debate, Donald Trump replied with a line about the Middle East, and then said he wanted to “get rid of the artificial lines”. He ended the debate by simply saying “We have to end Obamacare, and we have to make our country great again, and I will do that.”
Cruz, during the second debate, lumped Obamacare into his overall conservative vision saying “We’ll kill the terrorists, we’ll repeal Obamacare, and we will defend the Constitution, every single word of it.” In the fourth, fifth, and sixth debate, Rubio said he would “repeal and replace Obamacare,” “we are getting rid of Obamacare,” and that it was a “certified job killer,” respectively.
This kind of posturing against the President’s landmark legislation was indicative of the political climate we face today: one where details do not matter as long as the target is correct. And for the current crop of GOP candidates, one of those targets is sitting in the White House for another 11 months. I doubt their loathing of the President will truly amount to any sort of victory, whether actual, symbolic, or pyrrhic, but it sure does make for good television.
- August 6, 2015
- September 16, 2015
- October 28, 2015 http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/29/us/politics/transcript-republican-presidential-debate.html
- November 10, 2015 http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/11/us/politics/transcript-republican-presidential-debate.html
- December 15, 2015 http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/16/us/politics/transcript-main-republican-presidential-debate.html
- January 14,2015