The Washington Post

White House faces an insurrection over metaphors

White House press secretary Jay Carney speaks to reporters about the so-called "sequester" at the White House in Washington February 28, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque White House press secretary Jay Carney (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

It was bound to come.

After weeks of technical discussion over the budget and the debt ceiling, a debate both congressional Republicans and the White House have engaged in with no small measure of obfuscation, the media rebelled Thursday with a message: No more metaphors.

The shouts came in the White House briefing room as Press Secretary Jay Carney responded to questions about whether President Obama would sign a Republican proposal to extend the debt ceiling six weeks — but keep the government shut down.

Speaking a couple hours before congressional Republican leaders were due at the White House for a meeting on the matter,  Carney said it remained to be seen whether the opposition would "put the matches and gasoline aside when it comes to threatening default."

He also said the proposed short-term extension of the debt ceiling, which would the government would hit next week without congressional action, was a way for Republicans to keep the "nuclear weapon" of undermining the economy in their "back pocket."

But it was "ransom" — a word Obama has used repeatedly to describe Republican negotiating tactics — that struck the last press corps nerve. The usual briefing room decorum, such as it is, broke down entirely when Carney said finally that Obama would sign a debt-ceiling extension but not if it meant "paying a ransom" to Republicans.

"The president will not pay ransom for ... " Carney began.

"You see it as a ransom, but it's a metaphor that doesn't serve our purposes ... " NPR correspondent Ari Shapiro shouted back with broad support from other confused reporters.

"You guys are just too literal then, right? Carney said.

"We just want to accurately report," Shapiro began before Carney interjected. "We're trying to be accurate in our description of what's going on."

The hot rhetoric from a consciously cool administration has not been the domain only of senior advisers. An exasperated Obama helped set the tone during his news conference last week when he used a torrent of metaphors and angry characterizations to describe the budget standoff and debt ceiling threat.

As Chris Cillizza pointed out last week, Obama used “ransom,” “extortion,” “deadbeat,” “hostage-taking," "blow the whole thing up” and “insane” in his hour-long news conference. Republicans have made clear they don't appreciate the metaphors, either.

But polls show Obama coming out better than House Republicans in this latest fiscal crisis, and White House allies have joined in with metaphors and labels of their own.

In a tweet Thursday sent after House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced the debt-extension proposal, David Plouffe, who managed Obama's first presidential campaign and advised him inside the White House during his first term, wrote:

"Maybe throw in a Special Counsel to investigate the President's birthplace and the House GOP will stop committing economic treason."

It's getting rough out there — metaphorically speaking.

Scott Wilson is the chief White House correspondent for the Washington Post. Previously, he was the paper’s deputy Assistant Managing Editor/Foreign News after serving as a correspondent in Latin America and in the Middle East.



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