Nia-Malika Henderson had a great and illuminating piece in the Politico. Headlined "Blacks, whites hear Obama differently," she looks at how President Barack Obama is able to speak in a manner that solidifies his support among blacks while at the same time not alienating non-blacks who speak in a different manner. Here's how it begins:
On his pre-inaugural visit to Ben's Chili Bowl, a landmark for Washington's African-American community, President Barack Obama was asked by a cashier if he wanted his change back.
"Nah, we straight," Obama replied.
The phrase was so subtle some listeners missed it. The reporter on pool duty quoted Obama as saying, "No, we're straight."
But many other listeners did not miss it. A video of the exchange became an Internet hit, and there was a clear moment of recognition among many blacks, who got a kick out of their Harvard-educated president sounding, as one commenter wrote on a hip-hop site, "mad cool."
What a great lede. I do have to say that as a DC resident of over a decade, I was
appalledsurprised that President-elect Obama didn't know what a half-smoke was during his visit to Ben's. How do you live here for four years and not know our most famous local fare? At least the problem was fixed long before election day!
Anyway, the piece compared the signaling done by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. There's a lot of interesting comparisons made between the two and the article is well worth reading::
Dog-whistle politics was hardly invented by Obama. One of its most deft practitioners lately was President George W. Bush. He regularly borrowed the language of evangelical Christianity and the anti-abortion movement to signal he was simpatico with their beliefs, even as he often avoided obvious displays of support that might turn off middle-of-the-road voters. ...
Bush used phrases lifted from church hymns and the Bible to signal an affinity for like-minded Christians. The phrase "culture of life," became part of the political lexicon when Bush used it weeks before the 2000 election -- it was a less political, more evangelical version of "pro-life."
Bush also recognized that he had to tread carefully with his evangelism -- keeping his most loyal voters satisfied, even if following through on policy initiatives might be difficult.
With all due respect to the evangelical brethren out there, "culture of life" is a phrase with Catholic connotations. It was first used in America -- in Denver, according to Wikipedia -- by Pope John Paul II during a 1993 tour:
The culture of life means respect for nature and protection of God's work of creation. In a special way, it means respect for human life from the first moment of conception until its natural end.
Other Catholics are quoted using the phrase and the Pope expounded on the theme in his 1995 Evangelium Vitae:
In our present social context, marked by a dramatic struggle between the culture of life and the culture of death, there is need to develop a deep critical sense capable of discerning true values and authentic needs.
All pro-life groups may look the same to the mainstream media but there are actually some different outlooks, histories and methodology. 'Culture of life' may have been adopted by evangelicals but that was probably more a result of Bush's rhetoric than a precursor.
Also, that last paragraph says that Bush had to tread carefully with his evangelism. That's not the right word. Evangelism is the preaching of the Gospel. Bush didn't do that, even by this story's account.