The most basic branch of mathematics has been celebrated, indicted, and used as a political weapon by the presidency for nearly 150 years

barackobama05.jpgOne of Barack Obama’s few attempts at delivering a zinger at the first presidential debate two weeks ago in Denver was when he resurrected the most popular line from the most popular speech (and probably the most popular figure) at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

When asked about Mitt Romney’s tax plan, Obama included Bill Clinton’s famous line:

“And the fact is that if you are lowering the rates the way you describe, Governor, then it is not possible to come up with enough deductions and loopholes that only affect high-income individuals toavoid either raising the deficit or burdening the middle class. It’s — it’s math. It’s arithmetic.” – Barack Obama, October 3, 2012

“Arithmetic” was the buzzword coming out of Charlotte a month ago – with the former president using it six times in his address as he derided the Romney/GOP plan on taxes, the economy, and balancing the budget.

Unfortunately for President Obama, the line fell a bit flat before the well-behaved audience at the University of Denver – and he stopped just short of using it again during Tuesday evening’s debate at Hofstra University:

“Now, Governor Romney was a very successful investor. If somebody came to you, Governor, with a plan that said, here; I want to spend 7 (trillion dollars) or $8 trillion, and then we’re going to pay for it, but we can’t tell you until maybe after the election how we’re going to do it, you wouldn’t have taken such a sketchy deal. And neither should you, the American people, because the math doesn’t add up.” – Barack Obama, October 16, 2012

Obama, however, had been on quite a roll in recycling Clinton’s catchword over the past month.

For the first 3.5 years of his administration prior to the DNC debate, Obama had used the word ‘arithmetic’ just four times – and all in a straightforward (non-biting) way:

“And just as the SEED School teaches reading and writing, arithmetic and athletics, it also prepares our young Americans to grow into active and engaged citizens.” – Barack Obama, Remarks on Signing the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, April 21, 2009

However, since Clinton’s DNC speech, Obama has used a variation on the 42nd President’s ‘arithmetic’ theme 24 times in 21 different campaign stops and events, including his own DNC speech, sometimes with and sometimes without attribution:

“Now, I guess my opponent has a plan. But there’s one thing missing from it. Arithmetic.” – Barack Obama, Remarks at a Campaign Rally in West Palm Beach, Florida, September 9, 2012

“Now, in fairness, my opponent has a plan too, when it comes to taxes. But as President Clinton said, it doesn’t have any arithmetic.” – Barack Obama, Remarks at a Campaign Rally in Kent, Ohio, September 26, 2012

And while Clinton wasn’t the first president to chide a political opponent for not knowing basic arithmetic, he by far incorporated the word in his presidential remarks and statements more than any other president in U.S. history.

A Smart Politics analysis of the Public Papers of the President finds that Bill Clinton used the word “arithmetic” 208 times across 82 speeches and written statements during his presidency – more than any other president in U.S. history.

With his recent spate of arithmetic one-liners, Obama has now climbed into a distant second on the list, with 28 total uses of the word across 25 speeches and written statements.

Ronald Reagan is third (16 usages), followed by Grover Cleveland (15), Franklin Roosevelt (12), and Dwight Eisenhower (10).

In the modern era since FDR, the president with the fewest references to arithmetic is George W. Bush, with one:

“This is my actual first-grade report card. Up top, it says, “George W. Bush.” And then notice the final grades on the right: Writing, A; Reading, A; Spelling, A; Arithmetic, A; Music, A; Art, A. So my advice is, don’t peak too early.” – George W. Bush, Remarks at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, April 28, 2001

Presidential References to ‘Arithmetic’

# Statements
# References
Bill Clinton
Barack Obama
Ronald Reagan
Grover Cleveland
Franklin Roosevelt
Dwight Eisenhower
Gerald Ford
Lyndon Johnson
Richard Nixon
George H.W. Bush
Jimmy Carter
Chester Arthur
Harry Truman
John Kennedy
Ulysses Grant
Abraham Lincoln
Calvin Coolidge
George W. Bush

Data culled from a search of the Public Papers of the President. Table compiled by Smart Politics.

The first president to publicly discuss arithmetic in his capacity as president was Abraham Lincoln.

And he did so with the same sort of knowing, patronizing tone that Clinton and Obama have so frequently used.

During an interview from August 1864, the president was asked about the strategy of his Democratic opponent George McClellan of “crushing out this rebellion by force,” to which Lincoln replied:

“Sir, the slightest knowledge of arithmetic will prove to any man that the rebel armies cannot be destroyed by Democratic strategy. It would sacrifice all the white men of the North to do it.” – Abraham Lincoln, Interview with John T. Mills, August 15, 1864

Over the years – through various remarks, addresses, and executive orders – presidents would bring up “arithmetic” from time to time, although sometimes in non-political usages, such as in the rules of civil service admission requirements:

“But for places in which a lower degree of education will suffice the Commission may limit the examinations to, first, penmanship, copying, and orthography; second, the fundamental rules of arithmetic; but no person shall be certified under this examination of a less grading than 65 per cent on each subject.” – Chester Arthur, Executive Order (May 7, 1883)

“The clerk-copyist examination shall not include more than the following subjects: Orthography, copying, penmanship, arithmetic (fundamental rules, fractions, percentage, interest, and discount), elements of bookkeeping and accounts, elements of the English language, letter writing, elements of the geography, history, and government of the United States.” – Grover Cleveland, Executive Order – Amendments of Civil Service Rules (January 5, 1894)

Or a call back to the importance of the “three Rs” in education:

“Today’s proposals also will focus our Nation’s resources in helping our children master the basic skills, often in recent years neglected–reading, writing, and arithmetic–which remain critical to their ability to function in a complex society.” – Jimmy Carter, Elementary and Secondary Education Remarks Announcing the Administration’s Proposals to the Congress, February 28, 1978

“And they knew that true learning — basics like reading, writing, and arithmetic — don’t stem from trendy curricula.” – George H.W. Bush, Remarks to the Five-State Legislators Conference in Helena, Montana, September 18, 1989

Throughout the years, some presidents have espoused the usefulness and value of using this branch of mathematics, using it as a go-to guide for governance:

“That is why our school of thought–the conservative school -holds the view that an intelligent nation should rest its faith in arithmetic rather than in a hunch.” – Franklin Roosevelt, Address Before the American Retail Federation, Washington, D.C. (May 22, 1939)

“I think it must be explained over and over again to people who like to think of the United States Navy as an invincible protection, that this can be true only if the British Navy survives. And that, my friends, is simple arithmetic.” – Franklin Roosevelt, Fireside Chat, September 11, 1941

“It is a question of simple arithmetic. Unless we check the excessive growth of Federal expenditures or impose on ourselves matching increases in taxes, we will continue to run huge inflationary deficits in the Federal budget.” – Gerald Ford, Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress Reporting on the State of the Union, January 15, 1975

Other presidents even offered lessons in arithmetic:

“It is proposed under this program which we have inaugurated, that we hope to be able to ship 6 million tons of wheat in the first half of 1946. Now, if anybody needs a lesson in arithmetic, that is about 200 million bushels.” – Harry Truman, The President’s News Conference, February 7, 1946

“This is going to be the first airport rally arithmetic lesson in the history of all of American politics.” – Lyndon Johnson, Remarks at an Airport Rally in Detroit, October 30, 1964

But for some presidents, arithmetic is not the be all and end all in politics – and has not always been used for noble purposes:

Long before the art of economics had a name, it was called “political arithmetic.” The American people expect their elected officials to do their political arithmetic honestly.” – Richard Nixon, Address to the Nation on Economic Policy and Productivity, June 17, 1970

In fact, presidents have been wary that arithmetic is enough to solve the nation’s problems:

“It takes a little more than rough arithmetic to understand the Federal Government, it takes calculus.” – Harry Truman, The President’s News Conference on the Review of the 1947 Budget, August 2, 1946

And some presidents – particularly Dwight Eisenhower – even expressed its dangers and pitfalls:

“Furthermore, I have a deep conviction that all these people possess a fundamental common sense which permits them to grasp the difference between a quiet, steady, long-term improvement in their defense position and the tempests stirred up by public arguments over the artificial arithmetic which is so easy to produce in the defense field.” – Dwight Eisenhower, The President’s News Conference, April 30, 1953

I think from the beginning I said the most dangerous thing you can do in trying to evaluate military strength is to get into what I call the numbers racket, just taking one particular item or kind of weapon and putting them on an arithmetical equation and saying, “We can whip that fellow because we have more.” – Dwight Eisenhower, The President’s News Conference, May 9, 1956

While Mitt Romney probably does not enjoy being the subject of Clinton and Obama’s arithmetic political dig, not every president has swaggered into the White House espousing a deep knowledge of this branch of mathematics.

In fact, Ronald Reagan was occasionally rather self-effacing as he questioned his own skill at the subject:

“Over the past 6 days since I addressed the Congress, the response to our economic program has been enormously encouraging. Several thousand Americans have already written to me or have sent telegrams expressing strong support. If you want the figures, the latest telegraph count is 2,490 favorable, 43 unfavorable. And I won’t vouch for the arithmetic, but somebody that figured it out said that was 98 percent in our favor.” – Ronald Reagan, Remarks During a White House Briefing on the Program for Economic Recovery, February 24, 1981

“I told some of the crew the other night when we were doing that television speech, I said, “I was going to do an example here and hold, if I could get from the Treasury, a 4-inch stack of thousand dollar bills and tell the people, ‘That’s a million dollars.’ And I was going to then show them what a trillion dollars was in a stack of bills, but I couldn’t, because that would be about 63 miles high.” I may be wrong with my arithmetic, but I did it very hastily in my head.” – Ronald Reagan, Remarks at a Louisiana Republican Fundraising Reception in New Orleans, September 28, 1981

But it was Bill Clinton who emerged as the master of weaving arithmetic into his speeches – doing so more than 200 times during his eight years in office.

One of the earliest uses of the term for the 42nd President came in 1993 when he was defending a federal fuel tax increase:

“So the real problem is it’s really an arithmetic problem. If you want the pro-growth, pro-jobs incentives and you want to support work instead of welfare and you want to stay at $500 billion of deficit reduction or awfully close, how do you do it without this modest fuel tax?” – Bill Clinton, Interview With the Texas Media, July 28, 1993

And it became his political guide thereafter:

“The arithmetic of the new economy is the following: We have 4 percent of the world’s population and 20 percent of its income; 96 percent of the world’s consumers live outside the United States; and the developing countries are growing 3 times as fast as the developed countries. So if we want to keep our income with our population base, we have to sell even more to the other 96 percent, especially those who are growing so rapidly.” – Bill Clinton, Remarks at the Tropical Shipping Company in Palm Beach, Florida, October 31, 1997

“So this is arithmetic. In 1959 there were five people working for every one person drawing Social Security. In 2019 or 2029, there will be two people working for every person drawing Social Security unless we all start working a lot longer or there’s a huge influx of immigrants or something unforeseen happens.” – Bill Clinton, Remarks at a Democratic National Committee Dinner in West Orange, New Jersey, February 19, 1998

Of course, Clinton was not beyond using the term to criticize his political opponents when he wanted to be snarky:

“They can’t even fund my defense budget, much less the one they say they want. They’re going to have cuts in defense, cuts in education, cuts in the environment. That’s all their savings assumed, that they’re going to stay with the present budget levels, which they, themselves, are trying to get out of even as we speak here today. So this is–the American people are not–I mean, this is not rocket science; this is arithmetic.” – Bill Clinton, The President’s News Conference, July 21, 1999

But, above all, arithmetic, for Clinton, was to be valued, never violated:

“Now, in that time we quadrupled the national debt because people kept insisting we could spend more money year-in and year-out than we were taking in and somehow it would all add up. It violated arithmetic, and we’re paying the price for it today.” – Bill Clinton, Remarks to the Community in Mason City, Iowa, February 10, 1996

“And we’ve been dealing with–we went from creative supply-side mathematics to elemental arithmetic in 1993. And it has served us very well. And all I’m trying to do is stick with basic arithmetic and get this country out of debt, save Social Security and Medicare, provide this prescription drug benefit, keep us moving forward.” – Bill Clinton, The President’s News Conference, July 21, 1999

“We gave up supply-side economics now; nobody thinks that was a good idea anymore. We’re all back to basic arithmetic. It’s wonderful. It didn’t have anything to do with the digital economy. We went back to arithmetic.” – Bill Clinton, Remarks at a Democratic National Committee Reception in Palo Alto, California, October 1, 1999

And, in perhaps his greatest defense of this branch of mathematics, in a stump speech for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, Clinton referred to arithmetic 13 times:

“People ask me all the time, “What great new idea did you and Bob Rubin bring to Washington?” And I always say, “Arithmetic.”…We brought arithmetic back to Washington. And this is a message that I think African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans, and all other Americans ought to hear together. We’ve got to keep arithmetic here. You know, this is a job. It’s not just a speech; it’s a job. And one of the jobs is to be the monitor of the arithmetic. I’m just telling you, it’s arithmetic… And our friends in the other party, they say, “We want a tax cut that plus interest is 1.6, and we would like to privatize Social Security, a little bit, and that’s 1.” Forget about the zeros, 1.6 and 1. “And we want to spend some money, too, about a half a trillion.” That’s 0.5. Well, if you add 1.6 and 1 and 0.5 together, you’ve got 3.1. And arithmetic says that’s bigger than 2…Now, this is not rocket science; this is arithmetic…But it all begins with arithmetic. You get the arithmetic wrong in a country, you have to pay the price, just like you get the arithmetic wrong on your checkbook…The Vice President was part of every important budget decision we made. He cast the tiebreaking vote for the economic plan in 1993. He understands the price we’ve all paid to make the arithmetic work and how important it is to keep the expansion going…Now, these are simple little arguments, starting with arithmetic, going to sticking with what works, going to the fact that we all have got to go forward together, going to the fact that hard work and experience and a proven record of making good decisions counts for something… You’ve got to make the economy go with arithmetic.” – Bill Clinton, Remarks at a Reception for African-American Religious Leaders, October 30, 2000

With the race a dead heat less than three weeks until Election Day, one wonders if the Obama campaign might have been better served using “Arithmetic” as their campaign slogan, rather than “Forward.”

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  1. charles G on November 9, 2012 at 11:24 am

    Bill Clinton was very good at establishing Romeney’s plan to pay for tax cut and extra military spending just not adds ups.

  2. a view from britain on March 22, 2013 at 8:36 am

    It clearly looks as if though using the word arithmetic is the key to winning the presidential campaign as can be said now that Obama has been re elected. However, the word can be a pretentious notion of representing the obvious at the audience repeatedly until recognized as the only logical argument and hence, undermining the challenger.

  3. Math Guy on September 25, 2014 at 9:48 pm

    For the case of politician maneuvers, I would not use the word “arithmetics”, I would use the term “non-linear topological deformation”….

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