Of course Barack Obama talks differently to different groups. So do most politicians.

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Jan. 11 2010 6:33 PM

Code Black

Of course Obama talks differently to different groups. So do most politicians.

President Barack Obama.
President Barack Obama

Harry Reid's comment that Barack Obama could get elected because he was a "light-skinned" African American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one," may not have been artfully put. But subtract the poor choice of words— Negro sounds more fuddy-duddy than racist—and the statement, reported in the book Game Change, is fairly uncontroversial. Not only is it undeniable that Obama's skin tone and way of speaking had something to do with his election. Reid was praising Obama for one of the oldest political skills there is: the ability to adjust one's speech, and one's mannerisms, to different audiences.

Obama's knack for tweaking how he talks—or code-switching, in linguistics terminology—was on display during the campaign and after. At fundraisers in New York, he'd put on his professorial lilt. In front of mostly black audiences in South Carolina, he'd warn them against believing rumors that he was a Muslim. "They try to bamboozle you, hoodwink you," he said, in a deliberate homage to Malcolm X. On the Ellen show, he won the week by doing a harmless dance that drove the mostly white audience crazy. After a particularly rough debate in North Carolina, he referenced Jay-Z by brushing dirt off his shoulders and got a standing ovation. In an interview with Steve Kroft, he talked about college football and getting a dog. In an interview with MTV's Sway, he complimented his interviewer—"You look tight"—and emphasized his policy position that "brothers should pull up their pants."

Obama's code-switching isn't limited to style. The substance of what he says changes, too. In front of a Wall Street audience in September 2009, he politely but firmly cautioned against dangerous credit-default swaps. On 60 Minutes three months later, he excoriated "fat cat bankers"—something he probably wouldn't have said to their faces. The practice famously got him into trouble during the campaign when he told an audience at a San Francisco fundraiser that in small-town Pennsylvania, some people "get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them." No doubt he would have phrased the sentiment differently in small-town Pennsylvania.

Code-switching—or code-mixing, or style-shifting—is as universally derided as it is universal. In day-to-day life, it's seen as somehow deceitful—a betrayal of one's true self. In politics, it's considered the worst kind of pandering. Hillary Clinton was mocked when she affected a drawl for black audiences. John Edwards got smacked by William F. Buckley for putting on "a carefully maintained Southern accent." "Poor-mouthing," as one Edwards fan put it to me on the campaign trail.

But these kinds of adjustments are as endemic to politics as campaign slogans—and a lot more telling. "The gut reaction is it's a form of dishonesty, but a lot of people would say it's being a good politician," says Carol Swain, a law professor at Vanderbilt University who studies race relations. Code-switching occurs anytime a politician is trying to represent more than one group of people. In other words: pretty much always. As a senator, LBJ brought out the full drawl when he went home to Texas, versus his speeches on the national stage. Huey Long mastered the switch between his Louisiana dialect and a Washington patois.

Anyone who wants to represent a state or a country composed of different ethnic groups needs to find ways to relate to each of them. In New Mexico, that might mean learning some rudimentary Spanish. In South Carolina, it's droppin' your G's. In Wisconsin, it's knowing your cheddar varietals. Some call it pandering. Others call it campaigning.

Not only is code-switching standard in U.S. politics, it's necessary. The last president who spoke in a flat, patrician, newscaster style was George H.W. Bush. Every president since then has spoken a mixture. Bill Clinton could turn on the Southern twang. George W. Bush could, too, with an evangelical flavor. Those who can't, suffer. John McCain, says John McWhorter, a linguist at the Manhattan Institute, lost in part because of the way he talks—stiff, nasal, unfolksy.

Future candidates will learn the hard way. "Mitt Romney will not go anywhere because he cannot be verbally warm," McWhorter says. "If Republicans have a great white hope—of any race—they have to be able to not sound like a Republican."

Within reason, of course. Change your accent too much, and you sound like a fake. When Barack Obama tells a cashier at Ben's Chili Bowl, "Nah, we straight," it doesn't sound put on—even thought it may be. When Michael Steele says he's going to "come to table with things that will surprise everyone—off the hook," he sounds nearly as out-of-touch as Harry Reid. And Reid, when he made his controversial comments, was engaging in his own kind of code-switching. It's hard to imagine him saying the same things in front of Obama himself—or any African-American—rather than two middle-aged white reporters.

As much as American politicians code-switch, however, they don't do it nearly as much as politicians in other countries. What in the United States is implicit—oh, Hillary's doing her cowgirl thang again—is explicit in countries like Canada, where politicians literally have to speak two different languages. Two of Canada's greatest politicians, Brian Mulroney and Pierre Trudeau, were able to speak English as native English speakers and French as native French speakers—huge assets in a country where speakers of one language judge outsider politicians harshly. Likewise, politicians in Taiwan often employ the country's various languages—Mandarin, Taiwanese, Japanese—to make a political point. In a crowd with many different ethnicities, for example, a politician might switch among languages in order to symbolically smooth tensions.

American code-switching is relatively subtle. And Obama, ironically, is one of its more subtle practitioners. As Zadie Smith pointed out in her essay on Obama and language, his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention demonstrated his ability to pivot nimbly between cultures, sometimes in a single sentence: " 'We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.' Awesome God comes to you straight from the pews of a Georgia church; poking around feels more at home at a kitchen table in South Bend, Indiana." If Harry Reid noticed it then, he held his tongue.

AP Video: Harry Reid apologizes

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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