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NEIL STEINBERG: Barack Obama goes blue in latest bump in the 2012 road

President Barack Obamwill end most deportations students United States illegally through no fault their own. | AP

President Barack Obama will end most deportations of students in the United States illegally through no fault of their own. | AP

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Updated: November 27, 2012 10:56AM



The end of the interview is the most perilous part, as any politician will tell you and Barack Obama learned anew earlier this month.

As Rolling Stone journalists were leaving the Oval Office Oct. 11, one editor told Obama that his 6-year-old is supporting him.

“You know, kids have good instincts,” Obama replied. “They look at the other guy and say, ‘Well, that’s a bullshitter, I can tell.’ ”

Generally true, though kids can also have staggeringly bad instincts — they climb into old refrigerators, leap off roofs with towels pinned around their necks, set fires to school offices.

Obama’s own instincts, though, were a little off in his unguarded slur of his opponent, Mitt Romney, because as much as our Internet-driven culture has shattered the old standards of polite political discourse — to the extent that they ever really existed — calling your opponent a dirty word, no matter how true, is like handing a stick to your foes and dipping your head to be struck by it.

As soon as the story broke Thursday, the Drudge Report had a photo of Obama with the offending phrase headlined under him, leaving doubt whether it is referring to Romney, well-known as a chronic liar, or Obama himself.

It is rare when a president swears to good effect — Harry Truman’s pledge to “give ’em hell” perhaps. Usually the mud he flings spatters back on himself. Such as the general public revulsion felt when the White House transcripts not only showed Nixon as a Machiavellian character plotting to unseat his enemies, but swearing a blue streak while doing so.

This isn’t even a new problem for Obama. The president was cited on it in his first year in the White House — calling Kanye West a “jackass” while Vice President Joe Biden was quoted saying “Give me a f---ing break.” And then there was his chief of staff, the famously potty-mouthed Rahm Emanuel.

Three years ago, the thinking was that presidents weren’t swearing more, only the media was letting it through more. “Team Obama is no more crasser than administrations past,” Politico wrote in 2009. “It’s just that they are being quoted more accurately.”

Oh right, blame the media. Only in this case, it’s a fair criticism — if it is a criticism. We’re not publicists — if the president wants to use what once was charmingly called “foul language,” who are we to clean it up? Toward what end? Maybe the problem isn’t that the president swears, but that the old-school media doesn’t, as much, yet.

Forty years ago, Nixon’s curses were shielded from the public — the famous “expletive deleted” of the Watergate transcripts. Now it is mostly mainstream newspapers that feel the need to dash and obscure, while obscenity — often captured on video — is offered in all its unbleeped glory on the walls of the Internet. Yet the world does not crumble.

And to be fair, the media has not been consistent in its sense of decorum. The word “bulls---” — as opposed to the thing itself — has already appeared seven times in the

Sun-Times over the past 25 years, according to our computer library, the first time being in 1985, in a story from Forbes magazine about corporate firings.

Every generation flatters itself that it has reached some new low of coarseness, when in reality a certain set of words is perpetually kept in reserve, in a roped-off taboo section of the dictionary, to be used under specific situations where a certain kind of emphasis or impact is needed. Obama let his guard down at the end of his Rolling Stone interview, and provided one of the million meaningless memes that have so defined this election, little moments each side can grab and assign meaning to — the Democrats will use the president’s slip into salty waters as a sign of his humanity, an example of his growing confidence, his newfound aggressiveness. The Republicans will use it as Exhibit No. 12,434 as to why Barack Obama is unfit to be president of the United States, focusing on the earthiness without ever touching upon the critique it makes of their candidate, the most thoroughly recognized prevaricator since Pinocchio.

I swear a lot, when appropriate and sometimes when not, though never here, of course, but find it a useful arrow to have in my quiver. So while I don’t fault Obama for letting it fly, it seems to embody the second-rate campaign he has run in 2012, at least when compared to 2008, lacking the inspiring speeches, the exhortation to hope and progress, a stumbling slog that required periodic rescue from more skillful campaigners such as Bill Clinton and — gulp — Biden.

So I’m fairly confident that in a little less than three months from now, when Obama is doing a very different kind of swearing — the swearing in kind — this moment will be just another bump in his bumpy ride to a second term. That said, it will rattle us for the next day or so, until the next bump comes along.



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