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Obama Leans on Metaphors to Press Case on Debt Limit Obama Leans on Metaphors to Press Case on Debt Limit

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Obama Leans on Metaphors to Press Case on Debt Limit


President Obama pulled out some tried-and-true metaphors in the last press conference of his first term. (Richard A. Bloom)

President Obama covered themes ranging from gambling to guns to dining out as he rolled out metaphors on Monday to push his message on the debt ceiling. At a news conference, he demanded that congressional Republicans raise the legal limit on the country's borrowing and sought to put them on notice that he would not negotiate with them over the issue. GOP lawmakers want spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, but Obama said that the limit needs to be raised to pay for spending that Congress has already authorized.

Some of Obama's metaphors were long and complicated, but few were new—he has a penchant for using the literary device and often relies on a handful of tried-and-true ones.


“This is not a complicated concept,” he said, introducing a metaphor that dates back to last summer. “You don’t go out to dinner and then eat all you want and then leave without paying the check. And if you do, you’re breaking the law.”

But he didn’t end his dining-and-dashing metaphor there. Congress may want a debate about not going out to dinner in the future or going “to a more modest restaurant,” he said. “That’s fine.” But if lawmakers want to control their appetite, failing to pay the servers is not the solution, Obama said.

His use of that metaphor in June was so notable that The New York Times ran a story premised on it. “It’s like somebody goes to a restaurant, orders a big steak dinner, martini, all that stuff,” The Times quoted Obama as saying. “And then, just as you’re sitting down, they leave, and accuse you of running up the tab!”

In Monday’s news conference, the president also accused Republicans of wanting to negotiate “with a gun at the head of the American people.” Refusing to raise the debt ceiling would result in a “self-inflicted wound on the economy” that would make the United States a “deadbeat nation,” he said. “The full faith and credit of the United States of America is not a bargaining chip.”

The gun metaphor is one the Obama administration has used time and time again, even in the debate over gun control. Last week, Vice President Biden said there is no “silver bullet” to reducing gun violence, but that he was “shooting for Tuesday” to turn his recommendations over to Obama.

In September, Obama attacked GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney with what CBS News’ Mark Knoller said “may be the longest football metaphor ever spoken by a presidential candidate.” And, in 2010, he let the “campaign metaphors roll,” as The Times reported, refusing to drop one especially stubborn car-in-ditch metaphor to describe the state of the economy he inherited from President Bush.

But there is a downside to an overreliance on metaphor, as Jeremy Cox at Texas State University noted in a journal article last spring analyzing Obama’s use of metaphors: It “runs the danger of allowing those metaphors to stand in the place of reasoned discourse.”

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