Senator Obama and John

September 27, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston
Maybe to Senator Obama it’s not a lot of money.
I don't know where John is getting his figures.
A lot of people might be interested in Senator Obama's definition of “rich.”
John, it’s been your president . . .who presided over this increase in spending.
Senator Obama still doesn’t quite understand.
And so John likes – John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007.
And so it went in last night’s Presidential debate.

“If my 76 year old mom is any indication,” wrote a commenter on a conservative blog, “Obama lost Florida tonight. She was very put off by Obama calling McCain ‘John’ over and over, while McCain never deviated from referring to ‘Senator Obama’.”

Obama’s choice of names for his opponent had to have been deliberate. As that last example shows, he called McCain “John” when he referred to him in the third person and when he addressed him directly. Had the Obama campaign run focus groups, done research? Were they afraid that calling him “Senator McCain” would be too deferential to the “experience” that McCain is making so much of? They must have known about the Floridians and thought it was worth the risk.

But where is the cutoff point? I’m old enough that I’m still surprised when people I don’t know at all, people much younger than I am, start right off addressing me by my first name. The telemarketer offering me new services, credit card reps I call about a problem with by bill, tech support in Bangalore. Machines too. I log in to some website where I’ve registered, a bank perhaps, and “Hi Jay, pops up cheerily on the screen.

Younger people apparently take this first-naming for granted and don’t give Obama’s use of “John” a second thought. Perhaps they are even put off by McCain’s formality, as though he were lecturing Obama on manners. (One focus group found McCain to be “condescending,” while Obama was more “caring.”). But where, between the twentysomethings and the septuagenarians in Florida and elsewhere does the preference shift from first name to Senator?


Anonymous said...

An interesting question. As member of the Nirvana generation, I'm definitely a first name person. But my mother (a member of the Peter, Paul, and Mary generation) finds it appalling that I encourage my students to use my first name.

But come on, Jay, don't you think that Obama referring to McCain by his first name was a necessary counterbalance to all of McCain's "you don't understand, you naive young man" talk?

Jay Livingston said...

I don't think McCain addressed Obama directly. Several commentators also noted that McCain wouldn't look directly at Obama either. So it wasn't, "You don't understand," but "Senator Obama doesn't understand." And, dude, he only used that line seven times.

Anonymous said...

It was interesting that Obama switched back and forth between addressing his opponent as "John" and "Senator McCain," favoring the more formal toward the end of the debate.

But, also, what about both candidates-- well-spoken members of the Senate-- dropping their g's when using participles and gerunds? Mostly McCain, but even Obama did occasionally.

I thought we were sooo over that.

Anonymous said...

But Obama and McCain aren't strangers. They've worked together on bills. It makes sense for them to call each other by their first names.

Jay Livingston said...

Polly, I did a rough count, and Obama did use "Senator McCain" more frequently than he did "John." Still, he first-named McCain 25 times. Have any candidates in previous debates done this even once or twice?

Jay Livingston said...

A commenter at another blog ( linked to my post adding that Obama's use of "John" was a "deep violation of etiquette for older Southerners."
Maybe so, but the blog I took the comment from was at Commnetary Magazine, so I suspect that the 76-year-old in question was a Northern Jewish retiree, not a native Southerner, not even Miss Daisy.