Bush’s secret “code word”


President Bush used the phrase “hard work” 11 times in his debate with Senator Kerry last night.

It worked, I think, as a code word, a way of reaching out to a very particular, but very large, group of voters.

Most Americans don’t work for a living. They risk for a living. If they run a small business, they are especially vulnerable. If they are members of Free Agent Nation, they must be very, very responsive to a changing set of circumstances. Even if they belong to a corporation, large or small, they are subject to the vicissitudes of the marketplace. As the corporation confronts new dynamism, they can be downsized, rationalized or otherwise dumped.

The Democratic camp, many of them, may work for a living, but they do not risk for a living. They hold protected positions in unions, civil services, and universities. The world may rise and fall with dynamism, but they ride not the large and small boats of enterprise, but a larger, more secure, platform of occupational privilege. (The “owning” vs. “working” class distinction is still a salient distinction. But the real measure of privilege may be how protected we are from dynamic effects of the marketplace.)

There are lots of ways to protect ourselves from risk: education, intelligence, foresight, planning. But these are only the necessary conditions of managing risk. The sufficient condition is hard work. Those who risk for a living get up every morning, gird loins, grit teeth, and get down to business. They work really, really hard.

(Let me say, parenthetically, that I’ve done a lot of ethnographic work in this area. Over the years I have interviewed hundreds of Americans for thousands of hours of contact. I have worked as a consultant for many people in the corporate world. I am frequently wowed by how demanding, how time scarce, how stressed, and how effortful most of these lives are. All without a net.)

Bush used “hard work” 11 times last night perhaps because this phrase has special resonance for those who risk for a living. The phrase allowed the President to say, “Listen, what I am doing in the White House is what you do every day.” It allowed him to say, “We are both working hard because that is the way we respond to the risk that defines our lives and our worlds.”

“Hard work” was perhaps a code word. Those who live by risk got it immediately. Those who do not heard it as everyday language. Clever President Bush. He managed to sneak a rallying cry into the most ordinary little phrase. It allowed him to claim common purpose with Republicans, real and potential.

Dan Pink says that Free Agent Nation has a population of 33 million and notes, “Even this […] figure means that free agents easily outnumber all manufacturing workers and all government workers—and may be the largest single cluster of workers in the economy.” If we add to this the people who work in the corporate world without the protection of union contracts or tenure, the number of people who “risk for a living” must be very high.

This is a natural Republican constituency. These are people who believe, or must at least act as if they believe, in the necessity of hard work. Whether the Republican party has found a way to recruit this group remains to be seen. The notion of the “ownership society” is apparently one such attempt. It is possible that President Bush’s “hard work” phrase represents the beginnings of a second, more comprehensive, strategy.


Stats from Dan Pink’s Free Agent webpage here

19 thoughts on “Bush’s secret “code word”

  1. Scott McArthur

    Hello Grant,

    You make an interesting point about how hard work is a cornerstone value to those who earn their keep directly in the marketplace as entrepreneurs and owners.
    I am sure that Bush was trying to tie himself to their values and virtues.

    But this is not the only value that this group respects and I think one would be hard pressed to find a dominant value for this group, although one could list a set of values.

    In my personal experience, such as it is, entrepreneurs have a very low tolerance for lies and fabrications, usually called bullshit. This is only natural, if you lie to yourself and work in the market, you die. Or rather, your independence dies, the fruit of your hard work dies.

    Kerry’s message in the debate was; look, I am the truth of the situation and I will conduct my presidency truthfully, President Bush is detached from reality. He doesn’t know it and he doesn’t want to hear. This makes him a poor commander in chief.
    For me, during the debate this message came across. It was the key Kerry’s calm demeanor and to Bush’s visual ticks. Allergic reactions to the truth.

    Free agents respect the truth because it sustains them. They will respond to a President who is straight with them. I think there is enough there for free agents to put an X next to Kerry. I would also mention that in my personal experience, free agents are very independent minded and spill into both parties.

    I also think that in forming arguments and theories we need to be careful about making marxist methodological errors where we posit a group to replace the “prolitariat” to act as our agents of positive change and posit a “bourgeoisie” to act as agents of resistence and stagnation. Your descriptions of the occupationally priviledged reminded me of Marx’s attacks on landloards. Are the occopationally priviledged a category that MUST INEVITABLY be overcome/transformed into free agents to increase cultural dynamism?

    That sounds very utopian to me. Isn’t that just what was most distateful about the Marxist project, its utopian focus?

    Am I over-interpreting a simple analytical tool? It just helps to understand the problem by setting up these opposite categories?

  2. Xofis

    I came to the opposite conclusion, that “hard work” was an attempt to reach across the wealth divide to blue-collar workers.

  3. Grant

    Scott, thanks for another great and thoughtful post. I’m not sure Bush is out of touch with present realities (but I take your useful point that members of Free Agent Nation can’t afford to be). I think he sees a challenge, a necessity, and is responding it. We might disagree on some of the executional details, but the larger strategic picture is clear. Kerry, on the other hand, does seem to me to reformat his position too often to persuade me that he is sufficiently clear eyed to get the job done. Anyhow, this is the standing difference, isn’t it? Anyhow, thanks! Grant

  4. Grant

    Xofis: thanks, that’s interesting and possibly true, but again, it seems to be that “hard work to protect against risk” is a new dividing line that cuts across the traditional class lines. Wonder what Daniel Pink would say about this? Thanks, Grant

  5. fouroboros

    Grant, I took “hard work,” “it’s hard work to show my love for her,” etc to be a failed attempt to show solidarity with the everyman, too.

    Failed? Yep. Friday, I asked someone casually “How’s it going?” in a client’s office and was greeted with: “Working hard, man. It’s hard work, you know? Can’t tell you how hard we’re workin. I need a vacation, cuz, you know, it’s hard. Hard, hard work.”

    This was from one of your Risk Arbitrageurs. And a Virginia-brand conservative one at that.

    “Hard work” was just one of many joke-fodder statements (“Don’t forget Poland,” “Mixed Messages,” “Put a leash on ’em.”) A very bad showing in rhetorical and archetypal terms.

    Bush may claim to not to listen to focus groups, but he participated in one with 62.5 million invitees and they saw an ass trough the glass, a man out of his depth and whining about it. As Stephen says, they don’t dig bullshit. And they can can smell ineptitude.

    PS: Drudge has the latest, post-debate newsweek poll… Kerry-Bush: 47-45 (2% MoE). The 11+ point RNC Convention bounce is blown.

  6. Grant

    Fouroboros: Thanks for the comment. If the term is now the stuff of parody, I was wrong and you are right. As a last defense, I could resort to, “but it’s playing well in the heartland,” but that’s beneath even me. Still, I think there is something to the distinction that divides those who risk for a living and those who work for a living. There is gold in that there distinction and, as I say, it more naturally belongs to the Republicans than the Democrats. I guess the Democrats could say, if risk is the nature of the game, all the more reason for state supplied safety nets, but some of their loyalists already have those. Anyhow, thanks! Grant

  7. fouroboros

    Grant, I’m with you full on re: risk and it’s layered meanings to people. But I really feel that Bush’s “hard-workism” was just as much brainlock as calculated outreach. I’d bet it had been mentioned in debate prep as a possible and occasional rhetorical “seasoner” and his anxiety caused him to overdo it, to his ultimate undoing. SNL, predictably, used it as their intro theme last night. (Boy that show sucks now compared to decades past.)

    For me, Kerry’s use of “plan” and similar managerial-speak was a wise strategic move to contrast with the looped Bush meta-speak. (The split-screen comparison was, pardon the pun, manna from heaven for Kerry.) Post-debate, Howard Fineman had a nice nugget that sums up the burgeoning voter and media realization of a theme that never really took meaningful hold in 2000’s race: “Bush had 35 minutes of material for a 90 minute debate.”

    I’d say the managerial/risk class is suspicious of bullet points past a certain point. Results matter and facility with process is a plus. In this sense, Bush’s reliance on nationalistic buzzwords and faith-based phraseology compared to the fluidity and finesse with which Kerry handled the evolving debate questions and responses–regardless of what we may think of his ‘ideas”–showed a resourcefulness that many of us would like to be able to bring into our professional encounters.

    Kerry’s challenge, moving forward, is to marry his putative “domestic President” economic ideas to his role as potential commander-in-chief. That’s a synthesis that can and should be made regardless of who’s President if we want to regain the high ground on the war on terrror–if we really want to win it, that is.

    Great thread, Grant. The Kerry “synthesis” and your “bucket” post has got me scribbling a few posts of my own, thanks for the inspiration.

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  10. Jim

    Grant I think you captured George’s intent perfectly. At my most black and white, my definition of political conservatives is those who fundamentally believe they are responsible for themselves and what happens to them. Everything therefore has risk attached to it. Liberals are those who believe someone else should take care of them and their risk.

  11. Grant

    Jim, you and me are appear to be the only ones who read the President this way. Most of the buzz on line has been how risible the phrase was. And the polls seem to bear them out. Swing voters apparently were not moved. Grant

  12. skypilot

    what do you think is the possibility that he kept saying “it’s hard work” because that is only one of 8 or 10 thoughts he can keep in his head at once?

  13. Grant

    Skypilot, I don’t get why people think the President is not smart. That’s what they said about Reagan. Indeed, it is what Democrats appear eager to say about Republicans. To which the appropriate reply is: if Democrats are so smart, why aren’t they in the White House? Thanks, Grant

  14. Ennis

    Grant — leaving aside the president’s smarts for a second, isn’t it a dangerous rhetorical trick for him to be talking about hard work when he takes off record time for vacations, works short hours, and doesn’t prep much? Unlike other Presidents, including his father, he’s not putting in the time or the intensity that “hard work would imply”

    Does that necessarily mean that he can’t govern well? No, but it does mean that “smart work” (at best) would be more accurate than “hard work”

    I’ve never understood why Kerry doesn’t play the entrepreneur card as well, given that Kerry’s business actually made a profit and still exists to this day.

  15. skypilot

    Grant – sorry for the snide remark about the president – I don’t like trolls on my web sites and you shouldn’t have to put up with them on yours. Guess I had a weak moment.

    You are obviously very sincere about your feelings about the president. Unlike a lot of liberals, I’ve never bought into the idea that he is not smart. To get up in front of crowds every day and do what he does he has to be smart.

    I do believe that he has allowed himself to get hijacked by a group of people who are much smarter than him however — smarter than most people — and he has allowed himself to be taken along for a ride. I don’t believe that he has ever really had control of the government, and I think he has given over completely now and has more or less settled for being a mouthpiece for Karl Rove, Doug Feith, Dicke Cheney and the rest of them. THAT group I believe is absolutely power hungry, completely dismissive of the democratic institutions of our great country and scornful of the electorate except their power base, who are, to quote the president when he was speaking in front of an audience in Fahrenheit 911 “the haves and have-mores”.

    You may want to dismiss me as unpatriotic and anti-american, as no doubt I would now be dismissed by O’Reilly, Hannity, Savage or any of the others that pass for spokespersons for the Republican Party, however I am actually nothing more than a left of center progressive, fiscally conservative, who believes that we can do better than the group who currently reside in the White House.

    John Kerry does not thrill me, but I will definitely vote for him – I would vote for Joe the Dogcatcher if it would liberate us from the crazy things that are going on in Washington right now. I mean, Tom Delay????, Dennis Hastert???? — I literally stay awake nights worrying about the course this country is taking and I just cannot think about another 4 years of this.

  16. jay

    like most people who are even slightly awake and living in america – just the mention of this president is enough to get me going…
    i will not speculate for you about our president’s intelligence, or lack thereof.
    but i will say this much – “ye shall know them by their fruit”
    this administration’s brief tenure has nearly destroyed our standing in the world, bankrupted us financially(morally as well in other nation’s eyes, abu gharib, etc.), eroded our constitutional rights (patriot act), set environmental standards back 20 years, ignored science, reason, and indeed the advice of any wise independant counsel on any subject – even within it’s own ranks!
    now – if this is not intentional, this is an extraordinarily stupid man or a willing pawn – if it is intentional, it is outright evil.
    i’m not a religious person, but i think it’s time to pray for the country.

  17. v.

    I happened to stumble across your blog and am shocked and surprised. I am, probably, a neophyte, so bear with me. I would appreciate a better distinction between the politically conservative and the politically liberal. I’ve always thought of myself as very politically liberal. I vote such. However, I own a small business. I started it because the risk, to me, seemed a much better gamble than working for someone who did not have their “eye on the ball” as it were. My business has taken most of my waking hours these past six years. I can say that it is growing sucessfully and that I’m very lucky to have the moderate sucess that I’ve attained. I do not understand how that makes me conservative. Maybe I am. I am just surprised.



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  19. T

    Accidentally stumbled across these commments and couldn’t resist responding to the first post (way, way after the fact…)

    1. I work at a university and am wondering if you can direct me to one of those “protected” university jobs that allows me not to work. I work extremely hard and have no job security at all. No kidding: in the past 27 days I worked every single day (weekends included) 10-13 hours/day. This is a little more than my usual schedule, but not much. I have no problem with “hard work”, but I get REALLY pissed when people say I don’t just because I’m a Dem.

    2. Bush’s “hard work” comment may have suggested that he’s doing what all the rest of us are doing, but as usual with these guys, the facts don’t support it. Prior to 9/11, he had one of the longest Presidential vacation records in history. And he had just started work! (www.americanprogress.org/site/pp.asp?c=biJRJ8OVF&b=45265) And let’s not forget his silver spoon elite lineage, in which he’s never REALLy been at risk of losing anything his entire life. “Hard work” indeed…

    So, do whatever mental gymnastics you need to, but as an extremely hard working academic liberal with no job security, I think his “hard work” comments were exactly what they seemed to be: A rich daddy’s boy whining about having to leave his Crawford ranch and break a sweat.

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