Silver Spoon Revisited — Barack Obama Adopts New Language

I recently wrote about the hubbub over Barack Obama’s use of the phrase “silver spoon” when talking about the importance of a higher education. I explained that the metaphor is a powerful symbol in discussing higher education and opportunity, but that it also reinforces the Democratic competing personal narratives between the child of a single mother and the privileged son of an auto executive.

In my original article I talked about Mitt Romney’s handling of the issue during an interview with Fox & Friends, where he tried to link the metaphor to his father, the immigrant from Mexico, rather than recognize that the only one with a silver spoon was Mitt himself. But Stephen Colbert went further to point out that Barack Obama has used this metaphor for years, which I didn’t realize, and that Fox & Friends actually misquoted the President in an effort to make the link to Mitt Romney more direct.

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Today, Barack Obama spoke to students at the University of North Carolina, and the education stump speech mostly followed the model of his earlier speeches. With one important exception — no “silver spoon” reference. The exact passage of the speech detailing the educational history of the President and First Lady now points out that neither “come from families of means.”

This shift fascinates me because essentially he pivots from the line that generated the recent faux controversy to an alternative that more directly takes aim at Mitt Romney’s personal history. And yet, because it cannot be reduced to a “catchphrase” like “silver spoon” it is difficult to generate a faux controversy out of the line. Traditionally, political communication strives for simple, memorable catchphrases, but the ease with which Fox and the conservative blogosphere can shift these catchphrases into attacks may have now transformed the conventional wisdom to encourage less quotable, but still clear messaging.

I’m going to be on the lookout to see if this becomes a trend.

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