The diverse and varied universe of ‘folks’, according to President Obama


Obama talking to folks. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

During his news conference on Friday, President Obama made a strong assertion about the CIA's behavior under his predecessor. The United States, he said, had tortured ... some "folks." The contrast between the act and the description of those acted upon struck some as awkward. Understandably so.

But just as it was not the first time Obama had referred to America's having used torture, it was very much not the first time that he'd used the word "folks." Below, a brief history of how this president and folks have interacted over time.

October 2012. Folks discussed: Rich folks, middle class folks, Chinese folks, gangbanger folks, folks who mess with Americans.

During a presidential debate, Obama says that Mitt Romney wants "to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules." He, on the other hand wants "give middle-class families and folks who are striving to get into the middle-class some relief." Different folks.

He later accuses Romney of investing in companies that "are building surveillance equipment for China to spy on its own folks." And he makes his case on immigration: "What I've also said is if we're going to go after folks who are here illegally, we should do it smartly and go after folks who are criminals, gang bangers."

On Benghazi, he reminded Americans of his longstanding plan. "[O]ne of the things that I've said throughout my presidency is when folks mess with Americans, we go after them."

March 2014. Folks discussed: Hardworking folks, folks cooking meals for the troops, folks at the top, chairless folks, folks who need a raise.

Talking to an audience in Connecticut, Obama discussed income inequality -- "there are folks at the top who are doing better than ever" -- but "we understand that some folks are going to earn more than others." But he was fighting to give "hardworking folks" a pay increase. Folks like the "folks who are cooking the meals of our troops, or washing their dishes, or cleaning their clothes."

He also apologized because he knew "the folks here don't have chairs."

August 2011. Folks discussed: Korean folks, folks outside machine shops, non-farm folks.

Obama's weekly address was about putting Americans (American folks) back to work. He wanted to "see folks in Korea driving Fords, Chevys and Chryslers," he said. He wanted folks in Washington to put country before party, lessons he learned from having "shaken hands with folks outside machine shops and churches, corner stores and farms." (Folks who are outside of farms are not farmers, for the record.)

August 2009. Folks discussed: Folks being crushed, critical folks, folks with signs, folks who created a mess.

Campaigning in Virginia, Obama rails against the folks, critics, who say the economy is a mess. He doesn't want to hear the "folks who created the mess do a lot of the talking." He also notes that sometimes there are folks outside with signs. Meanwhile, Virginia folks are being crushed by health premiums. What a world!

February 2014. Folks discussed: Folks who worked at Costco, folks who earned tips, folks with pockets.

This one is pretty easy to piece together.

August 2011. Folks discussed: Folks who clean our water, folks in hats, folks who don't talk about patent reform, anxious folks, folks familiar with corn-based ethanol, folks in Washington.

A town hall in Minnesota. The president, kicking into reelection mode defends government workers, the FEMA folks, "the folks who keep our water clean and our air clean to breathe ... And when you go to a national park, and those folks in the hats."

Folks in Minnesota, he knew, were familiar with ethanol additives, but maybe those folks weren't as familiar with patent reform. Anyway, folks were "feeling a little anxious and distressed" about the economy, and he would fix it (was his argument).

But no folks have been discussed by Obama as much or with as much derision as the folks in Washington, the folks across the aisle, the folks in Congress. Those folks are the folks that make folks in Minnesota so anxious, was what he hoped to get across.

Anyway, the point is: Folks contain multitudes.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He previously wrote for The Wire, the news blog of The Atlantic magazine. He has contributed to The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Daily, and the Huffington Post. Philip is based in New York City.
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