Immigration. Unemployment benefits. Health care. Taxes. Obama has dusted off and stretched the ‘hostage metaphor’ to advance his policy agenda more than any president in history.

barackobama05.jpgPresident Obama will give another high profile speech next week when he delivers the first State of the Union address of his second term.

After winning reelection last November, Obama has spoken more boldly as he lays out what his critics would call a liberal political agenda, such as highlighting immigration reform and gay rights during his recent Inaugural Address.

What remains to be seen is how President Obama will frame these issues in the coming months as he spends his post-victory political capital in an attempt to get legislation passed.

In his first term, the president frequently trotted out a particular rhetorical device – one that not only advanced his agenda, but attempted to marginalize his political opponents.

In fact, Obama used this device more than any other president in history.

And what term has the president so heavily relied on as he frames the political debate?

The ‘H’ word.

A Smart Politics content analysis of the Public Papers of the Presidents finds that Barack Obama has used the word “hostage” as a metaphor more than any other president in U.S. history, and has spoken of figurative hostages vis-à-vis actual hostages at a rate 11 times higher than his predecessors.

Methodology and Definition

Smart Politics tallied every presidential use of the word “hostage” (plus “hostages” and “hostage-taking”) documented in the Public Papers of the Presidents and coded whether the usage was a reference to actual hostages (i.e. people held against their will) or figurative hostages (i.e. people not getting a policy they want), with the latter usually in the form of political rhetoric employed to demonize one’s opponents on a particular issue.

Through January 2013, there have been 1,800 presidential mentions of this term.

The most common use of the term “hostage” by presidents over the years is of course in the context of Americans or U.S. allies being forcibly held against their will, often by terrorists.

For the purposes of this report, the use of the word “hostage” by a president is counted as a literal use of the term when discussing the potential or actual endangerment (i.e. captivity) of a person, community, or nation by a criminal, group, or government to serve as security against threats.

As an obvious example:

“We continue to hold the Government of Iran responsible for the safety and for the early release of the American hostages, who have been held so long.” – Jimmy Carter, April 25, 1980, Address to the Nation on the Rescue Attempt for American Hostages in Iran

But also these:

“There can be no opportunity, no hope in a community where decent citizens are held hostage to gangs of criminals.” – George H.W. Bush, May 29, 1992, Remarks to Town Hall of California in Los Angeles

“We will not allow one of the world’s most dangerous leaders to have the world’s most dangerous weapons and hold the United States and our friends and allies hostage.” – George W. Bush, March 18, 2002, Remarks Following a Roundtable Discussion on Small Business and an Exchange With Reporters in O’Fallon, Missouri

In short, this category collects all presidential statements describing persons (or nations) who serve as security against an implied or real threat.

By contrast, presidents also sometimes engage in more figurative use of the term:

“I am tired of the U.S. economy being held hostage to the spot oil market. We’ve got to develop clean energy that will not only put money back in the pocket of consumers, but will also save our environment.” – Barack Obama, October 24, 2011, Remarks at a Democratic National Committee Fundraiser in Las Vegas, Nevada

“Let us join in making sure that legislation the Nation needs does not become hostage to the political interests of any party or any person.” – Richard Nixon, January 20, 1972, Address on the State of the Union Delivered Before a Joint Session of the Congress


The first presidential use of the word ‘hostage’ dates back to Teddy Roosevelt on December 2, 1902 in his Second Annual Message to Congress:

“The isthmian canal will greatly increase the efficiency of our Navy if the Navy is of sufficient size; but if we have an inadequate navy, then the building of the canal would be merely giving a hostage to any power of superior strength.”

The word was not used again by presidents until FDR, and then only sporadically until the Jimmy Carter administration.

Prior to Carter, the word ‘hostage’ was used by presidents – literally or figuratively – only 55 times.

For example:

“The practice of executing scores of innocent hostages in reprisal for isolated attacks on Germans in countries temporarily under the Nazi heel revolts a world already inured to suffering and brutality.” – Franklin Roosevelt, October 25, 1941, Statement Denouncing the Nazi Murder of French Hostages.

“But for over a year we have the spectacle of the Communist Chinese holding a group of our prisoners as sort of hostages.” – Dwight Eisenhower, August 31, 1956, The President’s News Conference

“But you are more than hostages. You are also an effective force on your own, because you are part, in a sense the arrowhead, of a long line of your colleagues in arms who also stand guard and watch in dozens of countries stretching all around the globe.” – John Kennedy, June 26, 1963, Remarks at United States Military Headquarters in West Berlin

“I am deeply gratified to learn of the release of the four Americans held as hostages by the miners in Bolivia.” – Lyndon Johnson, December 17, 1963, Statement by the President on the Release of the American Hostages in Bolivia

“One of these bills provides for reorganization of the Federal energy effort…Our ability to manage our resources and provide for our needs should not be held hostage to old forms and institutions.” – Richard Nixon, September 10, 1973, Special Message to the Congress on National Legislative Goals

Of course, as the taking of actual hostages increased throughout the world during the latter part of the 20th Century, so too did presidential use of the term.

Jimmy Carter spoke the word 718 times during his tenure, with 593 occurring in 1980 during the midst of the Iran hostage crisis.

Nearly every such use of the word by Carter during these four years was in direct reference to actual hostages, using the word figuratively just once during his administration.

Future hostage crises would ensue in the coming decades (e.g. in Lebanon, Iraq), as would presidential use of the term in the context of non life-threatening situations.

Literal vs. Figurative Hostages by the Presidents

However, no president has used the term with the frequency or linguistic fluidity as Barack Obama.

During his first four years in office, Obama used the hostage metaphor more times (70) than any other president in history.

Collectively, all presidents prior to Obama used the term figuratively just 123 times with Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton doing so 37 times each across their respective eight years in office.

When President Obama has mentioned the “H” word, he has referred to actual hostages just 15.7 percent of the time, compared to 84.3 percent of the time as a metaphor (70 of 83 instances).

That represents a figurative-to-literal use of the term that is more than 11 times the rate of all other presidents, who chose to speak of hostages as a metaphor just 7.2 percent of the time (123 of 1,717 mentions).

For example, when Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, mentioned hostages in his oratory and writings, he spoke of actual hostages 92.4 percent of the time.

In only 12 of 158 instances, did Bush stray and use the term more figuratively for political purposes.

The hostage-as-metaphor rate for other modern presidents: 0.1 percent for Jimmy Carter, 4.7 percent for George H.W. Bush, 11.4 percent for Ronald Reagan, and 35.9 percent for Bill Clinton.

Figurative Use of “Hostages” in Rhetoric by Modern Presidents

% Figurative
Barack Obama
Gerald Ford
Bill Clinton
Richard Nixon
Ronald Reagan
George W. Bush
George H.W. Bush
Jimmy Carter
All presidents

Note: “All presidents” includes scattered usage of the term by Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson. Data compiled by Smart Politics from oral and written documents published in the Public Papers of the Presidents.

Does It Matter?

In recent years, some professional athletes (e.g. Kellen Winslow) have been roundly criticized for comments about “going to war” or being “soldiers on the battlefield” in an age when real U.S. soldiers face risk of death or injury every day in conflicts overseas.

Sensitivity to not overplay one’s metaphorical hand during these serious times has not gone unheeded by the National Football League, which has subsequently tapered off its own use of the war terminology about the game in its promotions, films, and broadcasts.

As such, Obama’s elevated use of the hostage metaphor similarly treads the line of appropriateness in a post-9/11 world where actual hostages (from the United States and its allies) have been held against their will and sometimes executed.

The Evidence

And under what circumstances does President Obama utilize this rhetorical weapon in his political discourse?

When discussing taxes…

“So let me be clear to Mr. Boehner and everybody else: We should not hold middle class tax cuts hostage any longer. We are ready this week, if they want, to give tax cuts to every American making $250,000 or less.” (September 8, 2010, Remarks on the National Economy in Parma, Ohio)

“And if the other party continues to hold these tax cuts hostage, these are the same families who will suffer the most when their taxes go up next year. And if we can’t get an agreement with Republicans, that’s what will happen.” (September 15, 2010, Remarks on Small-Business Legislation and Tax Reform)

“Well, let me use a couple of analogies. I’ve said before that I felt that the middle class tax cuts were being held hostage to the high end tax cuts. I think it’s tempting not to negotiate with hostage takers, unless the hostage gets harmed. Then people will question the wisdom of that strategy. In this case, the hostage was the American people, and I was not willing to see them get harmed.” (December 7, 2010, The President’s News Conference)

“The Senate’s already passed a bill like this. Democrats in the House are ready to pass one too. All we need is for Republicans in the House to come on board. We shouldn’t hold the middle class hostage while Congress debates tax cuts for the wealthy.” (November 17, 2012, The President’s Weekly Radio Address)

“So Republicans in Congress, they’ve decided apparently that they’re not going to let this bill pass….they’ve decided to hold middle class tax cuts hostage until we also agree to spend another $1 trillion on tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, folks who don’t need tax breaks, and frankly, many of them aren’t even asking for them.” (July 24, 2012, Remarks at a Campaign Rally in Portland, Oregon)


“Unfortunately, reform has been held hostage to political posturing and special-interest wrangling and to the pervasive sentiment in Washington that tackling such a thorny and emotional issue is inherently bad politics.” (July 1, 2010, Remarks at American University)


“And I’m calling on the Republican leaders in the Senate to stop holding America’s small businesses hostage to politics and allow an up-or-down vote on this small-business jobs bill.” (July 31, 2010, The President’s Weekly Radio Address)

“Republican leaders in Washington just don’t get it. While a majority of Senators support taking these steps to help the American people, some are playing the same old Washington games and using their power to hold this relief hostage.” (July 3, 2010, The President’s Weekly Address)

Clean energy technologies…

“So, year after year, our dependence on foreign oil grew. Families have been held hostage to spikes in gas prices.” (October 2, 2010, The President’s Weekly Radio Address)

“I will continue to make the case for a clean energy future wherever and whenever I can. I will work with anyone to get this done, and we will get it done. The next generation will not be held hostage to energy sources from the last century.” (June 2, 2010, Remarks at a Campaign Rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa)

“But over the long term, the only way we can avoid being held hostage to the ups and downs of oil prices is if we reduce our dependence on oil. That means investing in clean, alternative sources of energy, like advanced biofuels and natural gas.” (May 7, 2011, The President’s Weekly Address)

Health Care…

“It’s the story of hard-working Americans who are held hostage by health insurance companies that deny them coverage or drop their coverage or charge fees that they can’t afford for care that they desperately need.” (August 11, 2009, Remarks at a Town Hall Meeting and a Question-and-Answer Session in Portsmouth, New Hampshire)

“And it ensures that veterans’ health care will no longer be held hostage to the annual budget battles in Washington.” (October 22, 2009, Remarks on Signing the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act of 2009)


“The confirmation of well-qualified public servants shouldn’t be held hostage to the pet projects or grudges of a few individual Senators.” (January 27, 2010, State of the Union Address)

“And they need somebody who is going to stand up for them, and millions of Americans need somebody who is going to look out for their interests. And that person is Richard Cordray. And we know what would happen if Republicans in Congress were allowed to keep holding Richard’s nomination hostage.” (January 4, 2012, Remarks at Shaker Heights High School in Shaker Heights, Ohio)

Financial regulations…

“Never again will the American taxpayer be held hostage by a bank that is too big to fail.” (January 21, 2010, Remarks on Financial Regulatory Reform)

Obama’s Predecessors

As mentioned above, the most recent presidents have used the hostage metaphor at some point during their administration.

From Ronald Reagan:

“But the Federal enterprise zone bill has been held hostage by the liberal Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives, the same people who want to work with my opponent to raise your taxes.” (October 12, 1984, Remarks at a Reagan-Bush Rally in Dayton, Ohio)

“This morning, I have strongly urged the leadership of the Senate to take whatever steps may be needed to free the economic security bill from this blatant attempt at legislative hostage taking.” (March 22, 1983, Statement on Proposed Social Security and Unemployment Benefits Legislation)

“I hope the leaders of Congress agree with me that the campaign against illegal drugs must not be hostage to headline seeking and partisan politics.” (May 21, 1988, Radio Address to the Nation on Armed Forces Day)

To George H.W. Bush:

“This economic recovery plan is being held hostage, and the ransom note reads, “Wait till after the election.” (July 27, 1992, Remarks to Holland American Wafer Employees in Wyoming, Michigan)

“And our bill has been gathering some dust, a hostage, in some case, to the lobby, the education lobby.” (September 18, 1991, Remarks at a Republican Party Fundraising Dinner in Salt Lake City, Utah)

And Bill Clinton:

“If Republican leaders send me a bill that makes workers wait for another year for their full pay raise and holds the minimum wage hostage for risky tax cuts that threaten our prosperity, I’ll veto it.” (March 8, 2000, Remarks on Minimum Wage Legislation)

“The American people should not be held hostage anymore to the Republican budget priorities.” (November 16, 1995, The President’s News Conference)

“This week, Republican leaders said that a threat from the far right in their own party could keep them from passing a welfare reform bill this year. A handful of Senators are threatening to hold welfare reform hostage to their own political views.” (July 8, 1995, The President’s Radio Address)

“Last year they held all these judges hostage, in an election year, hoping against hope I’d get beat and they wouldn’t have to appoint them at all. This year, I had a 4-year term; they still only confirmed 35 judges–slow walk and everything. It’s like pulling teeth.” (November 17, 1997, Remarks at a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Dinner in St. Louis)

And George W. Bush:

“Health coverage for these children should not be held hostage while political ads are being made and new polls are being taken. Congress must pass a clean, temporary extension of the current SCHIP program that I can sign by September the 30th.” (September 20, 2007, The President’s News Conference)

The difference between these presidents and Obama is, of course, one of scale and relative use of the term.

Utilizing the word for political purposes at 11x the rate of his predecessors, President Obama and his speechwriters undoubtedly feel there is significant political value in playing the hostage card with respect to a whole host of domestic policy issues.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks to see if the president goes to this linguistic well once again as he pushes his second term agenda in the face of likely roadblocks in the House.

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  1. Tom Distad on February 21, 2013 at 1:07 pm

    The number of times the GOPers in the senate have filibustered; the number of times the GOP house has just refused to negotiate; the number of falsehoods that he GOP has spread about policies, and the number of times the GOP has ignored the economic facts about public policies, justifies the use of the term “hostage”.
    In reality, progress has been held hostage by the ignorance of the GOP, and their desire to see Obama fail.
    They are still trying to give Bush Sr credit for Clinton’s success, and blame Clinton for Bush Jrs failures.
    The only way I see to set the hostages free is to (figuratively speaking) shoot the GOP!

  2. Barack Obama Approval Rating on June 25, 2013 at 5:29 pm

    Considering what Barack Obama inherited, I think he has done a remarkable job. Americans are accustomed to instant results and sometimes get impatient, but lets not forget the big mess that George W. Bush put this country in. The economy has turned for the better and the country is doing well now. Praise Barack Obama.

  3. T. Beam on July 1, 2013 at 9:46 pm

    I agree – Obama has done a great job so far despite the really terrible economy and global reputation the US has had.

    The economy has improved, and we’re constantly seeing technological innovations that will help our economy out even further – especially in terms of openness and accountability like the gov 2.0 innovations (

    In terms of energy – I think we should remember that many issues such as energy are definitely in the realm of the states’ powers to work on. California’s seen energy use stay relatively flat for over 3 decades (, and that was all due to programs and policies implemented within California by California’s own governor. Granted, federal oversight and participation would really help, especially when it comes to funding more programs like these.

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