Historian Timothy Meagher on Obama's linguistic difficulties

Historians in the News

...Democrats are handicapped by their split electorate, explains Timothy Meagher, a fourth generation Irish-American and professor of history at Catholic University. Republicans tend to be white and working or middle class, while Democrats encompass the poor, ethnic minorities and Americans with university degrees.

“The language that appeals to educated Democrats is more formal, more academic,” says Meagher. “College professors love Obama, because his language is beautifully crafted. But other groups can find it alienating.”

Race further complicates Obama’s linguistic choices. In his efforts to be a “regular guy”, the president calls people “folks” and drops his ‘g’s. “If he indulges too much in colloquial English, it sounds like black argot,” says Meagher.

“It’s easier for white politicians to descend into folksiness.” Obama’s intelligence and Ivy League education can be a political weakness that make him appear distant and cold, Meagher explains. “Dropping his ‘g’s can seem hip and cool to blacks and young whites, but older whites, and especially middle-class whites, may hear language that conjures up images of poor blacks. Do white Americans see someone like them, or someone who crosses a boundary? He’s boxed in by American stereotypes.” Vice-president Joe Biden is in a sense the Democrats’ secret linguistic weapon. From a northeastern, working-class, Irish Catholic family, Biden has the common touch, including the occasional swear word....

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