Dropping the “S Bomb”

Posted November 8th, 2010 in Uncategorized by Jeff Bentoff

President Obama appeared to be watching his words carefully when spoke at a news conference the day after the Democrats’ major mid-term loss last week. Obama Press Secretary Robert Gibbs didn’t tell me, but I’m guessing his boss’ goal was in part to not say something too memorable about the loss. In his prepared remarks, Obama made statements that seemed calculated to be boring, such as: “I can tell you that some election nights are more fun than others.” Not exactly great quotes.

Despite the administration’s apparent goal to speak in boring tones about the electoral rout, the media wanted something different, something colorful coming out of the president’s own mouth. They wanted Obama to characterize for the world what the whole country saw happen on Election Day – a huge trouncing of Democrats.

While mostly tossing off careful characterizations during remarks and Q&A, Obama eventually slipped up. Deep into a long answer to a question about his leadership style, the president appeared to ad lib a word that the media grabbed onto: “And that’s something that — now, I’m not recommending for every future President that they take a shellacking like they — like I did last night” (emphasis added).

The president dropped the “S Bomb”– the word “shellacking” – and the rest is history. Immediately after the news conference, the first sentence out of television reporter Andrea Mitchell’s mouth was about how the president called the defeat a “shellacking.” Story after story since the news conference reported the president’s description. The word “shellacking” has appeared in 20,000 – 25,000 articles about the election, according to a Google search. NPR even ran a piece trying to track down the word’s etymology as a synonym for a big defeat.

“Shellacking” is a nice, colorful word, but probably not one that Obama and his team planned to use. Within a desert of careful language, “shellacking” stood out. The off-message message made news. Which is how media works.

2 Responses so far.

  1. I think “shellacking” was chosen deliberately and in advance. The sole purpose of the news conference was having Obama give his reaction to the Democratic defeat. Every analyst in the business was critiquing his demeanor like an Olympic judge — measuring the angle at which he held his head and the pitch of his voice for the proper signals of contrition, to determine whether he “got the message” the “American people” had sent.

    The standard against which to measure this was, of course, that of the previous president. George W. Bush had the humility to admit he took a “thumping,” so Obama had to do something similar. He held “shellacking” back, then sort of slipped it in so it wouldn’t seem so obvious — but everyone in the room understood it was the cookie they were all politely waiting for like obedient dogs.

    It’s ridiculous that something so silly is our national focus instead of, say, tax policy, but that’s where we are. We are a people people.

  2. Jeff Bentoff says:

    Interesting. You may be right. I’d like to think it was planned. Either way, whether a slip or intentional, deviating from the boring talk was like tossing chum in the water.

    I agree that while we’re primarily a people people, that it’s time to get some of the policy stuff fixed. We could use it.

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