December 11, 2015

If Donald Trump wins the presidency on November 8, 2016, Hillary Clinton may only have her words—and President Obama’s—to blame.

 

As Americans learn more about the 14 innocents murdered in San Bernardino, California last week, questions about the president’s commitment to defeating ISIS continue to mount.

 

According to a recent CBS/New York Times poll, only 34% of Americans approve of the president’s handling of the threat of terrorism, an all-time low for Mr. Obama. At the same time, The Hill newspaper reports that “approximately 66 percent think Obama has no clear plan for defeating [ISIS].”

 

Ouch. 

 

One part of Mr. Obama’s problem may be found in his language choices. While most Americans have heard of and say ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), the president almost exclusively refers to ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). 

 

Just the other night in his address to the nation from the Oval Office, Mr. Obama said ISIL 19 times. Nineteen times he referred to our mortal enemies using a term the vast majority of Americans don’t use and aren’t familiar with. 

 

For the mother of three sitting at home in Davenport, Iowa watching the president repeatedly denounce an organization she’s never heard of, how much confidence in the president’s strategy to defeat ISIL ISIS do you think that instills? 

 

So what do the president’s grim polling numbers and language choices mean for Ms. Clinton?

 

First, the 2016 election is rapidly becoming a security election. Depending on which poll you read, around 80% of Americans now feel it is very/somewhat likely that terrorists will attack the U.S. in the near future. What’s more, nearly one in five Americans now say terrorism is the top issue facing the country.

 

Second, many Americans want the government to do more to combat and destroy ISIS. In fact, a recent CNN/ORC poll found 68% say our response to the threat hasn’t been aggressive enough. 

 

In short, Americans are both scared and anxious. Can you blame them?

 

That means Ms. Clinton’s road to victory or defeat may start with two words: radical Islam.

 

Republicans, seeking an electoral opening and loathe to appear “PC,” have been quick to single out “radical Islam” as the problem we face.

 

But Ms. Clinton argues the phrase “radical Islam” is wrongheaded because it “sounds like we are declaring war against a religion.” She may be right.

Many Americans, however, see it differently. A recent Rasmussen poll found that 60% of likely voters—including 56% of Democrats and 54% of Independents—believe America is “at war with radical Islamic terrorism.”

 

Not “terrorism.” Not “radical terrorism.” But “radical Islamic terrorism.” 

 

The issue here is perception, which is almost always driven by language. The words we use and the linguistic choices we make tell people about us. They send signals. They let us know we’re on the same team. Thinking the same things. 

 

Or, the exact opposite. 

 

For the president and his would-be successor to speak about these emotional, exigent issues in a language foreign to many Americans may be a sign of nuance and sophistication. But it is not smart politics. Further, it creates an impression among many—right or wrong—that the nation’s top Democrats fundamentally misunderstand the threat we face. 

 

When Americans worry that their child’s school or their spouse’s workplace may be next, you don’t win the White House with moral indignation. You win by connecting with voters on a deep emotional level. By making them feel safe. Secure. Free.

 

President Obama can say whatever he wants. He doesn’t have to face the voters next year. But if Hillary Clinton wants to be our Commander in Chief, she should remember every word sends a signal: either she gets it or she doesn’t. 

 

Ms. Clinton’s instinct is to use the Language of Inclusiveness to appear open-minded. What she doesn’t realize is how many worried Americans that language actually alienates.

 

She still has time to adopt the Language of the People and make that connection. If she doesn’t, we can all thank her for President Trump. 

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