STUMPED SPEECH

For Obama it's clear: No silver bullets

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President Barack Obama strongly defended his opposition to extending tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans and delivered a searing attack on Republicans for advocating "the same philosophy that led to this mess in the first place."

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By Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 9, 2010

Stumped Speech is an occasional look at the sometimes perplexing language used by politicians.

Today's phrase:

"NO SILVER BULLET"

Definition: The solution we are without, for an endless array of intractable social ills, including but not limited to the jobless rate, health-care cost containment, clean energy, Christmas Day bombers, the nuclear ambitions of rogue states.

The politician who most often fires no silver bullets these days is President Obama, in rat-a-tat style along with plain truth, real truth, easy fix, magic answer. He uses it to stiffen the American spine and to disarm his Republican opponents, and the man has strapped on a whole magazine in the past few weeks.

On Labor Day in Milwaukee, Obama said: "Eight million Americans lost their jobs in this recession. And even though we've had eight straight months of private-sector job growth, the new jobs haven't been coming fast enough. Now, here's the honest truth, the plain truth. There's no silver bullet. There's no quick fix to these problems."

(Adviser David Axelrod picked right up on it Wednesday morning on NPR, telling Steve Inskeep: "We've been working on the economy day in and day out. There's no silver bullet, Steve. . . . We would like some cooperation.")

Obama in the Rose Garden, Sept. 3: "There is no silver bullet that is going to solve all of our economic problems overnight."

And on Aug. 30: "Now, no single step is the silver bullet that will reverse the damage done by the bubble-and-bust cycles that caused our economy into this slide."

In folklore across cultures, the silver bullet is the true killer of witches, werewolves and really big forest beasts, much as the stake through the heart is the only way to dispatch a vampire. It shows up in the Brothers Grimm, in Washington Irving and in various ammo discussions in online arms forums, where a poster will wistfully ask where he can buy silver bullets.

(The answer is, you can't, and they wouldn't work anyway; because of the way silver shrinks when it cools, it wouldn't work well as a bullet.)

As rhetorical ordnance for politicians, the silver bullet showed up in connection with economic power in 1914, when soon-to-be British Prime Minister David Lloyd George said, "We have won with the silver bullet before."

When Richard Nixon said, "How about a silver bullet?" he was offering you a cold, dry martini, the late William Safire pointed out a few years ago.

Lee Hamilton, a co-chairman of the 2006 Iraq Study Group, concluded there was "no silver bullet" the panel could offer in its report. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asserted "there was no silver bullet that could have prevented the 9/11 attacks," and former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, "In this battle against terrorism, there is no silver bullet."

Obama had no need for "no silver bullets" in his books, "Dreams From My Father" or "The Audacity of Hope." The phrase never appears.

But since deploying it in the Democratic presidential debate on July 23, 2007, about energy woes -- "There are no silver bullets to this issue. We've got to explore solar" -- he has held it close like a security blanket. There were "no silver bullets" at a wind turbine blade manufacturing plant in Iowa, at a community college in New York state, at a health-care town hall in Colorado.

A review of the transcripts revealed he has reached for his "no silver bullets" more than 60 times since he started running for president, a metaphorical dependency that makes you wish somebody could slip him a box or two of the ammo. Oh, Lone Ranger, where are you?!

If you have any suggestions for Stumped Speech, send them to gerharta@washpost.com.


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