Politicians are (usually) naturally gifted in the art of communication.
Some certainly have better oratory skills than others (Barack Obama compared to, ahem, George W. Bush, for example).
Others are good at tapping into and expressing the mindset of their audience.
Wherever their particular brand of charisma comes from, politicians tend to fall back on a few key phrases to get their message across. Some tried-and-true lines also have a strategic way of saying nothing at all—another often-employed “talk” tactic.
Here are ten key phrases that come right out of the politician’s playbook.
1) “The government is best which governs least.”
Okay, so he wasn’t exactly a political leader per se, but variations of this quote mostly attributed to 19th-century philosopher Henry David Thoreau have been used by politicians throughout history a lot.
Political leaders from 1960s presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy to present-day Canadian Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre have often talked about how the power of the individual is paramount.
Emphasizing that good government should only serve as a benefit is a key communication strategy.
The late Robert F. Kennedy put it this way:
“At the heart of western freedom and democracy is the belief that the individual man…is the touchstone of value, and all society, groups, the state, exist for his benefit. Therefore the enlargement of liberty for individual human beings must be the supreme goal and abiding practice of any western society.”
Politicians like to use variations of this phrase as a way to assure voters that their role isn’t to rule, but to serve the people’s best interests, and to allow for the greatest amount of human freedom.
This means freedom of speech, freedom in personal relationships, personal safety and security, security of property rights, and more.
2) “Tackle the real issues”
This classic phrase is used (and used again) on the campaign trail during election cycles.
This is a politician’s way of saying that they are problem solvers and that they will get to the heart of the matter. They understand what is important to the public “better” than their opponents.
In 2016, then newly-elected British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn used the phrase to say that the party will not “sow division” despite pressure from backbenchers in the aftermath of the vote to leave the European Union.
“A Labour government will not offer false promises. We will not sow division or fan the flames of fear. We will instead tackle the real issues of immigration—and make the changes that are needed.”
3) “Let me be very clear”
This political cliché has been used (and abused?) throughout history.
This one is often used when a politician wants to emphasize a point.
In 2022, when the US Supreme Court overturned Roe V. Wade, President Joe Biden said, “Let me be very clear and unambiguous. The only way we can secure a woman’s right to choose and the balance that existed is for Congress to restore the protections of Roe v. Wade as federal law.”
This phrase is also routinely used when a politician wants to emphasize something they “didn’t” do.
Former President Trump’s senior advisor Jared Kushner said this back in 2017 on the issue of Russia’s possible interference with the 2016 US election:
“Let me be very clear: I did not collude with Russia, nor do I know of anyone else in the campaign who did so. I had no improper contacts.”
Sometimes the line is used as a filler during speeches and debates, but mostly it’s used as a transition line so as to repeat and stress specific narratives and messaging.
This one might be old, but it’s gold: it also has a way of snapping the audience back to attention in case their minds have wandered off…
4) “Mistakes were made.”
This one is often a politician’s indirect way of saying that they screwed up—usually big time—but without personally taking the blame.
It’s also been referred to as “the king of non-apologies.”
In December 1986, United States President Ronald Regan admitted that “mistakes were made” by his administration when it sold arms to Iran and shipped the proceeds to Contras in Nicaragua.
Just a month later, he used the phrase again in his 1987 State of the Union address.
Former Democrat President Bill Clinton used the phrase in 1998 when he was asked about a fundraising scandal. He said: “Mistakes were made here by people who did it either deliberately or inadvertently.”
Similarly in 2006, when he was speaking of the Iraq war, President George W. Bush said, “Whatever mistakes were made in Iraq, the worst mistake would be to think that if we pulled out, the terrorists would leave us alone.”
5) “It’s crunch time.”
Candidates often employ this phrase when it’s close to election day and they want to do eleventh-hour appeals to voters.
It’s a line used to motivate people not to just go out and vote—but to go out and vote for them.
Politicians also use this line when something important is on the agenda and they want the media to pay attention to them.
US Speaker of the House James McCarthy used the phrase very recently in relation to striking a detail on the debt ceiling talks. “We know it’s crunch time,” he said.
North Carolina Representative Jeff Jackson said the same thing on the same issue: “It’s crunch time on the debt ceiling.”
6) “In the pipeline”
This is a very strategic phrase when something that was promised—perhaps on the campaign trail and was one of the mandates that helped get them elected—but hasn’t been brought to fruition yet.
South African justice minister Ronald Lamola said it in regards to a whistleblower law that MPs had proposed.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi used it on June 1 in reference to a power trade deal between India and Nepal.
“In the pipeline” is an easy and blanket statement that indicates something is in the works without having to get specific.
7) “My friends…”
This one is repeated again and again as a way to appeal to voters’ emotional sides. It also makes the politician put him or herself as part and parcel of the people.
Former US Senator and Republican candidate John McCain said this line a whole lot during his 2008 presidential campaign.
In fact, in the US “my friends” or “my good friend” is a line that is used routinely on the House and Senate floors.
In their book Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes, writers Chuck McCutcheon and David Marks say that this phrase was the most cited expression from the many politicians, aides, lobbyists, and scholars they interviewed. “[This expression is] the one that best demonstrates how polite speech masquerades as the truth.”
8) “We must stay the course.”
This is one of the most prominent political phrases out there.
“We must stay the course,” is a generalist phrase and can be used for a myriad of matters on a politician’s agenda.
George W. Bush used it in reference to the war on Iraq—probably as a way to placate people’s impatience with a war that didn’t make any sense.
At a Tory conference in 2022, British chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng insisted “on staying the course” after a backlash against his mini-budget.
This phrase is used when a politician is determined to continue doing things as they are despite any criticism and opposition they receive.
9) “All attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail. It must be business as usual.”
This one is by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in October 1984 when a 20-pound bomb exploded in the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England, where most of the British cabinet was lodged.
The bomb blast had ripped part of the front wall off the building, and blew out the windows in the Napoleon suite, where the the then-Prime Minister herself was staying,
George W. Bush said something similar in a number of speeches in the aftermath of the attacks on the country on September 11, 2001.
Leaders say variations of the phrase as a way to comfort their people and promise them that their way of life will not be destroyed by people who wish to inflict harm and death on their societies—be they domestic terrorists or foreign.
10) “Mission Accomplished.”
This political phrase for when a politician achieves something they set out to do—particularly if the endeavor was especially challenging.
In September 1996, former US President Bill Clinton used the phrase following the second cruise missile strike against Iraqi air defense targets, when he declared that the operation was a success.
President Obama also used a similar term in January 2013 on Afghanistan when he said that local forces in the country would take the lead later that year for all security operations, at a joint press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Sometimes the phrase can even be said prematurely, like in the case of former President Trump.
In April 2018, Trump used the phrase following what he said was a successful airstrike against targets related to Syria’s chemical weapons program.
“Mission Accomplished” was also the banner displayed on the USS Abraham Lincoln during a speech by George W. Bush on May 1, 2003. It referred to the warship’s mission during the Iraq War. The phrase would become one that haunted him.