Washington Gets Flexible by "Bending Over Backwards"

Why people keep saying Obama is leaning back in the debt negotiations

This article is from the archive of our partner .

The cliche  Writers are going out of their way--"bending over backwards" you might say--to make extended metaphors regarding Obama's flexibility in the debt negotiations. Paul Krugman writes in The New York Times today, "A Democratic president who bends over backward to accommodate the other side--or, if you prefer, who leans so far to the right that he’s in danger of falling over--is treated as being just the same as his utterly intransigent opponents. Balance!" Joan McCarter at Daily Kos writes, "So the bending over backwards to find something they'll agree to, finding what might conceivably make them take 'yes' for an answer is a losing proposition. It's about time that Obama makes the Republicans come to him, with the threat of the consequences of not doing so falling on their heads." And Michael Kinsley in the Los Angeles Times asks what possible excuse John Boehner had earlier this week for not returning President Obama's phone call: "It could be that Boehner was truly unavailable. He was in the bathroom, perhaps, or visiting his psychic at a location known only to his chief of staff, who was on vacation. Or maybe Boehner was accidentally locked in the Capitol garage without his cellphone... I'm leaning over backward here."

Where it's from  The folks at takeourword.com suggest that people began to "bend over backwards" in the figurative sense sometime in the 1920s. They credit the first written use of the idiom to The Nation in 1925, which wrote, "Stambuliski leaned over backwards in his desire to satisfy Serbian demands." The genesis is straightforward. It would be quite difficult to bend oneself backwards, so when someone says they will do it for you, they mean they will achieve something very difficult or take great pains to please you.

Why it's catching on  It has most often appeared in this month's news cycle in reference to President Obama, whom liberals say has "bent over backwards" to appease Republican demands on a debt ceiling deal. (Whether they support this feat of gymnastics depends.) The point is to suggest that Republicans are to blame for the stalemate since Obama has sacrificed much of his agenda to theirs to get them to raise the debt ceiling and avoid default.

Why else?  Bruce Bartlett, an economic adviser to Reagan, was widely quoted as saying that Obama is actually slightly right of moderate. When people suggest he is "bending over backward" or doing the undo-able, often they imply that he is turning himself into something people didn't think possible--a conservative. Or, as Krugman said in his long metaphor, he's not bending backwards so much as leaning right. Hopefully no one in Washington falls on their heads before a debt deal is forged.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.