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It's 'common sense' – or is it? The politics of Obama's new favorite phrase.

Politicians from the president to the tea party use the rhetoric of 'common sense' to support their thinking on key issues. But is the phrase really telling us anything at all?

President Obama gestures as he speaks about his gun violence proposals, Monday, at the Minneapolis Police Department's Special Operations Center in Minneapolis, where he outlined his plan before law enforcement personnel.

Jim Mone/AP

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In these early days of his second term, President Obama isn’t just promoting legislation on guns and immigration. The president and his surrogates are promoting “common-sense proposals” to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill, and a revamped, “common-sense” immigration system.

Indeed, it is rare in recent Obama administration pronouncements that the terms “gun measures” and “immigration reform” appear without the words “common sense” nearby.

At a campaign-style event on gun violence in Minneapolis on Monday, for instance, Mr. Obama used the phrase five times in a 15-minute speech.

“I need everybody who's listening to keep the pressure on your member of Congress to do the right thing,” Obama said at the Minneapolis Police Department Special Operations Center. “Ask them if they support common-sense reforms like requiring universal background checks or restoring the ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.”

The use of “common sense” to woo the public is as old as the nation. In 1776, activist Thomas Paine wrote the best-selling pamphlet “Common Sense” to promote the idea of colonial independence from Britain – and the term has been deployed regularly for political use ever since.

“It has been a hallmark of populism on both the right and left,” says Sophia Rosenfeld, a historian at the University of Virginia and author of “Common Sense: A Political History.” “It was used to argue for abolition and also for slavery, for women’s suffrage and against women’s suffrage.”


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