It's 'common sense' – or is it? The politics of Obama's new favorite phrase.

Politicians from the president to the tea party use the rhetoric of 'common sense' to support their thinking on key issues. But is the phrase really telling us anything at all?

Jim Mone/AP
President Obama gestures as he speaks about his gun violence proposals, Monday, at the Minneapolis Police Department's Special Operations Center in Minneapolis, where he outlined his plan before law enforcement personnel.

In these early days of his second term, President Obama isn’t just promoting legislation on guns and immigration. The president and his surrogates are promoting “common-sense proposals” to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill, and a revamped, “common-sense” immigration system.

Indeed, it is rare in recent Obama administration pronouncements that the terms “gun measures” and “immigration reform” appear without the words “common sense” nearby.

At a campaign-style event on gun violence in Minneapolis on Monday, for instance, Mr. Obama used the phrase five times in a 15-minute speech.

“I need everybody who's listening to keep the pressure on your member of Congress to do the right thing,” Obama said at the Minneapolis Police Department Special Operations Center. “Ask them if they support common-sense reforms like requiring universal background checks or restoring the ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.”

The use of “common sense” to woo the public is as old as the nation. In 1776, activist Thomas Paine wrote the best-selling pamphlet “Common Sense” to promote the idea of colonial independence from Britain – and the term has been deployed regularly for political use ever since.

“It has been a hallmark of populism on both the right and left,” says Sophia Rosenfeld, a historian at the University of Virginia and author of “Common Sense: A Political History.” “It was used to argue for abolition and also for slavery, for women’s suffrage and against women’s suffrage.”

In the modern era, one way for an interest group to project a hint of populism is to put “common sense” in its name – such as Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based watchdog group that tracks federal spending (and named Alaska’s infamous “Bridge to Nowhere”).  Some tea party groups, like Alabama's Common Sense Tea Party Patriots, have also incorporated the phrase into their titles. 

Other Republicans have been prone to recent pleas for “common sense” as well. During the 2012 presidential campaign, GOP nominee Mitt Romney called for repeal of the Affordable Care Act and replacement with “common-sense, patient centered reforms.” In 2009, the House Republicans’ answer to Obamacare was a bill called the Common Sense Health Care Reform and Affordability Act.  

So what does this “common sense” rhetorical flourish really convey? And does it work?

It’s a way of asserting that an issue has been decided – when in fact, just the opposite is the case – and of depicting opponents as unreasonable ideologues, say experts on language and political rhetoric.

“Political figures say something is ‘just common sense’ when they want to imply that it's obvious to anyone whose thinking isn't fogged by ideology or strained by excessive cleverness,” says Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley's School of Information.

“Both right and left have appealed to ‘common sense’ over the years, but in politics the fact that you feel obliged to invoke ‘common sense’ usually means that the views aren't common to everyone,” Mr. Nunberg adds. “It's like saying that an issue is ‘not political,’ which more or less guarantees that it is."

On a practical level, by framing his ideas as “common sense,” Obama is trying to get the public to take action.

“It’s clearly an effort to capture the center, the independents, and moderate voters who did vote for him in the election, or at least a majority of them,” says Martin Medhurst, a professor of rhetoric and political science at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. “I’m sure [Obama] hopes they will put pressure on their elected representatives and somehow conjure a majority on his proposals.”

Indeed, as part of his argument for reform on both guns and immigration, Obama often mentions opinion polls that he says support his positions. Many polls show majority public support for the major elements of his gun legislation – a renewed ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, and background checks on all gun buyers.  

But anybody who has followed the debate over guns knows that the matter is far from settled. Obama’s other rhetorical turn – referring to “gun violence measures” and not “gun control” – shows how mindful he is being of his word choices on a delicate issue. To some gun-rights advocates, “gun control” can signal the beginning of a slippery slope to confiscation.

Still, Republicans aren’t too worried that the Second Amendment is about to bite the dust. Even Vice President Joe Biden, who chaired Obama’s task force on gun violence following the Dec. 14 school massacre in Newtown, Conn., played down the proposed ban on assault weapons, saying he thinks access to high-capacity magazines is of greater concern. After all, most gun deaths in the US are caused by hand guns, not assault weapons. 

Political analysts say the proposed ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines doesn’t have the votes in Congress and that the most Obama will get is expanded background checks.

But Obama’s use of open-ended rhetoric “could be a big problem for Republicans down the line,” when deficit reduction and defense spending come back to the fore, says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “Like the phrase ‘paying your fair share.’ I can see the expressions on people’s faces, they think he’s being reasonable. Same with ‘common sense.’ Everyone places their own meaning on it.”

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