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Pivoting Away from ‘Pivot’

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 10.41.46 AMHillary Clinton keeps trying to pivot to the general election. But Bernie Sanders — like a white-haired white Bill Russell — won’t let her.

I will let the pundits break down the politics involved. What interests me is pivot. Originally a noun meaning (in the Oxford English Dictionary‘s words) a “short shaft or pin on which a mechanism turns or oscillates,” it was being used as early as 1841 to refer to the act of turning, as if on a pivot. That’s where the basketball maneuver, and that sport’s notion of a “pivot foot,” comes from. For fans of Friends, the word cannot fail to bring to mind the episode where Ross believes that screaming “Pivot!” is the best strategy for carrying a big sofa up a narrow stairway.

But the OED  has no listing for the figurative sense of redirecting one’s attention and efforts, which is in the air right now. It’s most commonly seen in reference to Clinton’s efforts to disengage Sanders from the leg of her pantsuit and concentrate on battling an orange-hued real-estate magnate in the general election. The New York Times wrote on May 22, “Mrs. Clinton said it was vital for her to pivot to confront Mr. Trump now, lest he successfully repackage himself for wider consumption, rather than appealing to the Republican primary electorate alone.”

But as that suggests, it is also being used in connection with Trump himself. His erstwhile opponent Ben Carson promised, “You’re going to see Trump pivoting.” Writing in the Times Magazine, Mark Leibovich explained that the “pivot” trope

refers to the expectation that at some point a leading presidential candidate will transform himself into a more suitable version of a likely nominee. He will “pivot” his attention away from his hard-core base of loyalists in favor of the broader general electorate. He will, in Trump’s case, scale back his hell-raiser, insult-monger bit and become more “presidential.” No doubt Trump’s pivot will be beautiful and be instantly recognized as one of the great pivots of all time.

It would appear that the rise in metaphorical pivot is due to a foreign-policy position expressed early in the Obama administration. Two former members of the administration, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt M. Campbell (who is working on a book called “The Pivot: America’s Rediscovery of the Asia-Pacific Century”) and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, are credited with devising a strategy to devote more resources and attention to Asia. In a 2013 address, Donilon recalled that when Obama took office in 2009,

It was clear that there was an imbalance in the projection and focus of U.S. power. It was the president’s judgment that we were overweighted in some areas and regions, including our military actions in the Middle East. At the same time, we were underweighted in other regions, such as the Asia-Pacific. Indeed, we believed this was our key geographic imbalance.

Obama initially stated the shift in a 2011 speech to the Australian Parliament: “As President, I have, therefore, made a deliberate and strategic decision — as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with our allies and friends.”

In the speech, the president used neither pivot nor any version of Donilon’s weight or balance metaphors. The first use of pivot I’ve been able to find by a member of the administration came later that year, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote a Foreign Policy article called “America’s Pacific Century,” the first line of which read, “As the war in Iraq winds down and America begins to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, the United States stands at a pivot point.” She used the word two more times in the article and didn’t use rebalance at all. And pivot turned out to be the term that had legs — but not because Mrs. Clinton used it. It’s just a stronger, more active metaphor. Rebalancing is rearranging a bunch of kids’ blocks. Pivoting is a basketball player making a quick move that leaves his defender lunging the wrong way.

Unfortunately, rebalance was really the more accurate of the two terms, as pivot suggests turning your back on what you had previously faced. The flaw in the metaphor led to criticisms of the policy, and already in 2012, The New York Times was reporting that Pentagon officials preferred rebalance to pivot. In his 2013 speech, Donilon defensively said, “Here’s what rebalancing does not mean. It doesn’t mean diminishing ties to important partners in any other region.”

Another problem with pivot, as the NPR Asia correspondent Michael Sullivan recently pointed out, is that it suggests speed, and implementation of the policy has been delayed by a series of crises in the Middle East.

The “rebranding” (as Sullivan put it) seems to have worked. Pivot is just too strong to go away, but press coverage of the president’s current Asia trip has shown a rebalancing of metaphor, with pivot and rebalanccoexisting in harmony. As for the candidates’ pivots, I don’t know when they’ll be able to execute them, but I do know the process will be anything but harmonious.

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