When Presidents Cry "Hostage!"

President Obama has used the word "hostage" in at least sixteen speeches, interviews and statements this year.
JEWEL SAMAD

To listen to President Obama, you'd think we were in the grip of a never-ending hostage crisis.

In sixteen speeches, statements and interviews this year, including his State of the Union address, he has decried the hostage-taking of one issue or another:

  • MIDDLE CLASS TAX CUT EXTENSIONS: "So let me be clear to Mr. Boehner and everybody else: We should not hold middle-class tax cuts hostage any longer." -Speech on the Economy, Parma, Ohio, 9/3/10
    • AID TO SMALL BUSINESS: "Simply put, holding this bill hostage is directly detrimental to our economic growth." Statement on the Economy. -The Rose Garden. 8/30/10

    • VETERANS PROGRAMS: "...to sign advanced appropriations into law so that veterans health care will never again be held hostage to the budget battles of Washington." -Address to Disabled Veterans of America, Atlanta, 8/2/10

    • UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS: "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 - a move that only ends up holding back our recovery. It doesn't make sense." -Weekly Address, 7/3/10

    • IMMIGRATION REFORM: 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. -Speech at American University School of International Service, 7/1/10

    • HEALTH INSURANCE REFORM: "For too long, we've been held hostage to an industry that jacks up premiums and drops coverage whenever they please. Those days are coming to an end." Address to American Nurses Association, 6/16/10

    • NOMINATIONS: "The confirmation of well-qualified public servants shouldn't be held hostage to the pet projects or grudges of a few individual senators." State of the Union Address, 1/27/10.

    • ENERGY POLICY: "The next generation will not be held hostage to energy sources from the last century. We are not going to move backwards. We are going to move forward." Speech at Carnegie-Mellon University, 6/2/10

    But American presidents have been using the "H"-word to make a point and pressure the opposition since long before Barack Obama.

    Back in 1902, in his Second Annual Message to Congress, President Theodore Roosevelt warned of the dangers of deploying a naval force of insufficient size to protect construction of the Panama Canal: "...if we have an inadequate navy, then the building of the canal would be merely giving a hostage to any power of superior strength."

    President Kennedy had a Cold War concern about the size of the U.S. military contingent in the divided German city of Berlin in 1961:"...we mean to defend our position in West Berlin, and that American troops, who are not numerous there, are our hostage to that intent."

    Every U.S. president of the 20th century has spoken of hostage-takings, but many of those times involved the real taking of hostages by a foreign nation or group.

    But in 1966, President Johnson may have been the first to use the "H"-word in a purely political sense, in remarks to the nation's governors about federal support for law enforcement. "Practically everything the Federal Government is undertaking is hostage to your enterprise and vision."

    Five years later, in August of 1971, President. Nixon was trying to make an assertive point about American currency: "I am determined that the American dollar must never again be a hostage in the hands of international speculators."

    It was Nixon who began the use of "hostage" in the way Mr. Obama uses it today: to try to put partisan opponents on the defensive. At his news conference on February 25, 1974, he used the word in response to the Watergate scandal and to answer calls for his resignation. "...it is vitally important in this nation that the Presidency of the United States not be hostage to what happens to the popularity of a President at one time or another."

    Each of Nixon's successors has used the word "hostage" in a partisan context.

    RONALD REAGAN, in support of a constitutional amendment for a balanced federal budget: "The time to act is now--for the sake of all of our people, for future generations of Americans whose chances for prosperity and opportunity are held hostage by big government's addiction to red-ink spending."  - 9/30/92

    GEORGE H. W. BUSH, in speech to the National Association of Attorneys General: "We've got to see that the great cities -- indeed, some of rural America -- that they are no longer held hostage to the crack dealers." -3/13/89

    BILL CLINTON: in remarks to reporters about getting his childhood immunization bill enacted: "I just want to say that today we're having the Easter egg roll on the White House lawn. You can look out there at those kids. They are the hostages of the Senate filibuster on the program." -4/12/93

    GEORGE W. BUSH: in anti-crime speech to the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives: "Let's focus our time and energy and efforts on ferreting out those who hold others hostage in our society and stand side by side with the police officers all across America. -7/30/01

    GEORGE W. BUSH: in statement urging Democrats not to add other programs to the Defense and Veterans bill he wants: "It's hard to imagine a more cynical political strategy than trying to hold hostage funding for our troops in combat and our wounded warriors in order to extract $11 billion in additional social spending." -10/30/07

    So Mr. Obama is following a well-worn path trod by his predecessors in crying "hostage" for political purposes. The word is an inflammatory one that can help a president make a powerful point, if not score political points against the opposition.

    There's nothing unusual about one party trying to get its way by blocking action on an issue important to the other party. When it suits a president to say so, it's holding an issue "hostage." But mostly, it's just politics as usual.


    Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow him on Twitter here: http://twitter.com/markknoller.

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      Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent.

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