The president is a 'betting' man

President Obama speaks during a campaign event in Maumee, Ohio, on July 5, 2012.

Sarah Gardner: President Obama hit the campaign trail today -- Ohio and Pennsylvania this time around. Here's the president in Ohio, talking about the administration's bailout of the auto industry:

President Obama: I was betting on the American worker. I was betting on American industry.

And on this tour, he is "Betting on America." That's the slogan for this particular tour.

So what does it mean to bet on America? We asked a linguist, Ben Zimmer. He's the language columnist for the Boston Globe. Mr. Zimmer, thanks for joining us.

Ben Zimmer: Thanks for having me on. 

Gardner: Now as you just heard, the president was talking a lot about betting today. He's betting on the American worker, he's betting on Ohio, he's betting on America. What's with all the betting?

Zimmer: Well it reminds me of the whole tradition of gambling metaphors in American politics where you talk about the odds, the whole language of gambling, of bluffing, tipping your hand, raising the stakes. So it draws on that, at the same time is draws on a sense of confidence, the ability to take risks, which is perhaps an image that Obama would like to portray. At the same time, he doesnt' want to be seen as a foolish risk taker. He says that he is going to bet on the American worker, and so that is giving you the sense that it's a sure bet, it's a bet that's going to payoff.

Gardner: Why all these gambling terms right now do you think? It's not just President Obama who talks this way. What does it say about the state of country that these kind of terms are being used in general discourse?

Zimmer: Gambling terms often come up when there is a sense of uncertainty about the future. There are risky propositions, we don't know what is going to work and what is not going to work. And so it is a double-edged sword, where using these terms can say, 'yes I have an assertive plan that can work, and I'm willing to risk political capital for it.' But on the other hand we've been through a lot of financial risk in the past few years, and so that message may not always work. Saying that you're a betting man or a gambling man might actually be something that wouldn't play well in these risk averse time.

Gardner: Right so, bottom line Ben, do you think this theme of "Betting on America" is going to resonate with voters?

Zimmer: Well to continue the gambling metaphors, I think that it could payoff for Obama. The odds might be in his favor as long as he doesn't try to raise the stakes too high, over-play his hand, and perhaps break the bank on this particular political ploy.

Gardner: Ben Zimmer is the language columnist for the Boston Globe. Ben, thanks a lot.

Zimmer: Thanks for having me.  

About the author

Sarah Gardner is a reporter on the Marketplace sustainability desk.

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