The Art Of Language, Obama-Style

"Screwed up." It's a term that President Barack Obama has been using for years.

He dropped it into several conversations just last week when talking about the way he mishandled the nomination of Tom Daschle as secretary of health and human services.

"I think I screwed up," he told Anderson Cooper of CNN.

"I think I messed up. I screwed up," he said to Katie Couric of CBS.

An interesting choice of words for a newly installed president: screwed up. It sounds borderline vulgar; definitely colloquial. But more on the phrase in a minute ...

His Own Way Of Talking

First things first: President Obama has his own way of talking. He understands the power of language, and he chooses his words carefully to disseminate his worldview.

For instance, when discussing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama shies away from a favorite phrase of the former administration: "war on terror." "Words matter in this situation," Obama told CNN recently, "because one of the ways we're going to win this struggle is through the battle of hearts and minds."

Because he understands on a profound level that language is the way to hearts and minds, it makes sense to observe his word choice and manner of speaking very closely. In terms of style, Obama has a new way with words. Obamantics, maybe?

It's not just that he uses everyday expressions, such as "screwed up" and "folks." He relies on simple language to explicate — um, explain — complex ideas. He often begins sentences with the words "listen" or "look."

"Look, I — I would love not to have to spend money right now," he said at Monday night's prime-time news conference.

"Look," he said at a town hall meeting earlier on Monday in Indiana. "We've got to get the bill passed. But we also have to make sure the money is well-spent."

He doesn't use $5 words when nickel ones will suffice. In fact, says Roderick P. Hart, a communications professor at the University of Texas, Austin, Obama is the league leader in talking straight.

Hart oversees the Campaign Mapping Project, which, among other things, tracks the language patterns of presidential candidates. The project found that compared with the other 24 folks who ran for the presidency between 1948 and 2008, Obama was the lowest on "Complexity" — a measure of average word size — and also lowest on "Embellishment" — a measure of the ratio of adjectives-plus-adverbs to nouns-plus-verbs.

"In other words," Hart says, Obama "is, comparatively, a 'straight talker' or, less controversially, a 'plain-spoken Midwesterner.' "

Presidential Ways Of Speaking

Every president has a unique way of talking. Richard Nixon famously referred to himself in the third person when he lost the 1962 California gubernatorial race: "You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore." Ronald Reagan often started sentences with: "Well ..." Bill Clinton was forever calling something "a big deal," The New York Times once noted.

"When Obama is speaking off the cuff," says John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, "he's just not as good as Clinton." The new president searches for the exact word he needs to make his point; Clinton's verbal arsenal was always on.

Obama's real strength, says Geer, whose specialty is the presidency, "is his ability to reach rhetorical heights. He's better than anyone in a long time, including Reagan."

Another president with mad rhetorical skills was Franklin D. Roosevelt, Geer says. "He could be a really effective speaker. And his best speeches were highly partisan."

That combination of oral gifts — the ability to appear comfortable whether scripted or extemporaneous — is rare, Geer says. "Eisenhower wrote great speeches but was not a good speaker. Neither was Nixon, for that matter."

Obama is a first-rate orator, Geer says, and he is improving his impromptu responses. "The potentially interesting thing is that I have yet to see him hit the ceiling. He keeps getting better. He is less halting in town hall settings. He continues to show more and more talent."

Making Mistakes

But the 44th president does make errors.

"The Obama statement that 'I screwed up' reflects two things," Geer says. "It sets a different tone from the prior administration, because he admits mistakes. And he chose to do it in a folksy way. I don't think Obama is folksy. I don't think that's his strong suit."

But, Geer adds, the informal language shows that Obama is trying to connect with the American people on a very human level.

In The Washington Times, Jennifer Harper writes that "the indecorous quality" of Obama's comment offended some political analysts.

Obama has used the phrase before. In February 2006, Obama, Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Sen. Russell Feingold addressed the media at the Capitol about the Honest Leadership Act and lobbying reform. He used it again in a presidential debate in February 2008 when talking about the U.S. military mission in Iraq. And a little while later, on 60 Minutes, when he told Steve Kroft that the presidential campaign had not fundamentally changed him as a person. "I don't think I've gotten too screwed up through the process, I think," he said.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the phrase back to the early 20th century. Originally, it may have only meant that a person or situation was confused. In 1907 a British novelist wrote of "the perpetual screwed-up condition of mind and body to a pitch above the normal."

The OED points out that in the U.S., the phrase may also have originated as a euphemism using the sexual connotation of screw.

Jonathan Lighter is in the middle of compiling and editing the four-volume Historical Dictionary of American Slang for Oxford University Press. He says that in the 1944 Broadway hit Winged Victory, by playwright Moss Hart, a character says someone is "screwing everything up."

Lighter adds, "I don't know that there were any serious complaints at the time. 'Screw up' has only increased in daily use since."

In the eyes of Mike Agnes, editor-in-chief of Webster's New World Dictionaries, the phrase "is not even rude. It's just too common nowadays." It simply means to bungle or to foul up.

Granted, he says, "it's not the usual statesman's language."

But, he adds, "Obama is not the usual statesman."

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