Famous Sayings: #83 — ‘The Buck Stops Here’

October 14, 2017

When a decision has to be made, the buck stops here.

the buck stops here, pass the buck, buck, Harry Truman. famous sayings
U.S. President Harry S. Truman made the phrase “The buck stops here” famous. However, the phrase didn’t originate with him. It was also derived from another famous saying.

I thought of this phrase because a variation of it was used nearly five years ago during a presidential debate in the United States. But as it turned out, this famous saying was derived from another, which also gave rise to a slang term. That means this post is kind of a 3-for-1.

What Event Was I Thinking Of?

I thought of this phrase when looking back at the Obama administration. He used this phrase at least three times from what I could find, but I associated the variation “the buck stops with me” with the Second Presidential Debate on October 16, 2012.

For some reason, I thought I remembered Obama saying it but upon a review, it appeared he hadn’t. His Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, did, however.

At the time, Obama was under pressure to explain what happened in Benghazi, Libya the month before.

About the Attack on the Benghazi Complex

On September 11, 2012, the U.S. diplomatic compound in was sieged and set ablaze. Four Americans died in that attack.

The Americans killed in the attack on two U.S. outposts in Benghazi were the U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, Foreign Service officer Sean Smith, and CIA contractors Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods. On that night in Libya, the Americans came under attack at their compound as 70 armed men invaded and set fire to one of the buildings. Stevens and Smith were killed by the fire. Doherty and Woods were killed with the CIA annex was attacked.

At the time of the attack on the Benghazi compound, multiple attacks had been carried out on U.S. embassies in Cairo (Egypt), Tunis (Tunisia), and Sanaa (Yemen). The attack in Cairo was the first and it might have been triggered by a cheap, American-made film criticizing Islam. The subsequent protests were likely inspired by the first attack, but not necessarily prompted by the film.

Initial reports blamed the attack in Benghazi on a video that had been made to criticize Islam. However, less than an hour later, those

Overall, the investigation into the 2012 Benghazi incident turned up nothing that could indicate Former Secretary Clinton. If anything, President Obama could be blamed for the lack of security since he was responsible for forming his own budgets and asked for no additional funding for the Benghazi complex.

While Ambassador Chris Stevens felt no additional security was needed there it does not excuse the lack of planning or budgeting to account for that dangerous location. In 2011, the United States and its NATO allies had deposed Muhammar Ghadafi, Libya’s dictatorial leader, in a fatal airstrike. Since then, the country had fallen into lawlessness.

The Controversy

The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, then Susan Rice, was instructed to go on news programs and link the attack to an anti-Muslim video. That was wrong, but it wasn’t her fault.

Matthew Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, called the attack an act of terrorism. It took until the next week for Leon Panetta (Obama’s defense secretary) and other cabinet officials to do the same.

While doing an interview that aired on Fox News, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that she took responsibility for what happened in Benghazi, but up to a point.

In an apparent attempt to weaken a potential line of attack on Obama by Mitt Romney in Tuesday’s crucial debate, Clinton broke away from a tour of Latin America to tell US television networks that responsibility for the circumstances that led to the death of the ambassador, Chris Stevens, stops with her not the White House.

“I take responsibility,” Clinton told CNN. “I’m in charge of the state department’s 60,000-plus people all over the world and 275 posts. The president and the vice-president wouldn’t be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals. They’re the ones who weigh all of the threats and the risks and the needs and make a considered decision.”

Ultimately, she said security professionals bore responsibility on their end.

“The decisions about security assets are made by security professionals,” she told Fox News.

The 2012 Debate at Hofstra University

In the second presidential debate of 2012, President Barack Obama and businessman Mitt Romney squared off in a town hall-style affair. Many agreed that Obama won this debate and it was a comeback for him considering the virtual face-plant he had in the first debate.

Near the end of the debate, Obama was asked a question about his administration’s failures on the night of September 11, 2012 in Benghazi, Libya. The president jumped out in front of the issue and said that the ultimate responsibility rested with him.

In this 27-second clip from the second 2012 presidential debate, Candy Crowley asked Obama about accepting responsibility for the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had accepted responsibility for overseeing State Department employees — while saying security officials were responsible at their end. Crowley asked Obama if he felt “the buck stopped with Secretary Clinton,” to which Obama responded that as president, he was ultimately responsible since Clinton worked for him.

The Key Exchange

Romney:  It’s very clear. This was not a demonstration. This was an attack by terrorists.

Obama: The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the rose garden and I told the American people and the world that we were going to find out exactly what happened, that this was an act of terror, and also said that we’re going to hunt down those that committed this crime.1

Romney: You said in the rose garden the day after the attack it was an act of terror? I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.

Obama: Get the transcript…

[After Candy Crowley corrected Romney] Can you say that a little louder, Candy?

The Significance

The question about Libya was the turning point of the entire debate. It was memorable because Obama took responsibility and put Romney on the spot for using it “to score political points.” Also, when Romney tried to rebut Obama, Romney was checked when Crowley pointed out Obama called the attack on the Benghazi outpost an act of terrorism.

President Obama said that it took his team a while to determine what happened, but as soon as he heard that the diplomatic compound in Libya was under siege, he called for an increase in security. Obama said he also wanted to get to the bottom of what happened and who was responsible. He took the opportunity to take a jab at Romney and shame the Republican for putting out a press release just days after the attack when the Obama administration was still trying to figure out what happened, because that would take some time.

Romney tried to pounce on Obama for failing to call the attack an act of terrorism. But that ultimately backfired.

How Has This Phrase Been Used (in the Past Decade)?

There were a few instances I could find from politicians and political writers, but most came from Obama.

January 7, 2010

On January 7, 2010, President Obama took responsibility for the government’s reponse to information that eventually led to the failed Christmas Day bombing plot. At a 13-minute press conference, the President said, “The buck stops with me.” Days before, he placed blame on the Bush operation administration and implicated that the intelligence community was dealing with faulty and outdated information. At the press conference, Obama took a different approach.

Taking a decidedly different tack from his predecessor in the face of a government failure, President Barack Obama on Thursday took the blame for shortcomings that led to a failed Christmas Day bombing plot, saying, “The buck stops with me.”

Aides to Obama signaled that he was consciously seeking to be the anti-Bush, airing the administration’s dirty laundry and stepping up to take his share of the responsibility.

Obama said that there was enough information to apprehend the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab yet the government misapplied the available data. John Brennon, Obama’s counterterrorism advisor, said he let the president down.

May 28, 2010

On this day, President Obama talked about assuming responsibility for the cleanup after the BP oil spill.

I ultimately take responsibility for solving this crisis. I’m the president, and the buck stops with me.

October 2012

John McCain also used the phrase in a rebuttal to what Clinton and then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said about the early intelligence on Benghazi:

They’re either deceiving the American people or they are so incompetent they don’t deserve to serve.

In a scathing October 16, 2012 editorial, The Washington Times editorial staff said Obama was shying away from taking the proper amount of responsibility for the attack on the diplomatic complex in Benghazi, Libya. The editorial staff also wrote that if Clinton insisted on taking responsibility, she should also be prepared to face the consequences. Regardless, the writer of this piece said Clinton was being more responsible than Obama.

If Mrs. Clinton wants to accept the blame, she also should accept the consequences.

Mr. Obama seems more than willing to let the buck stop with Hillary.

November 9, 2014

On Sunday, November 9, 2014, President Barack Obama’s interview with Face the Nation’s Bob Schieffer aired on CBS. During the wide-range interview, the president talked about the mid-term elections, immigration reform, and the United States’ Middle Eastern strategy.

First and foremost, President Obama took responsibility for the losses the Democrats suffered during the mid-term elections:

President Barack Obama is taking blame for the Democratic drubbing in last week’s midterm elections, saying “the buck stops right here at my desk.”

What Does the Phrase ‘The Buck Stops Here’ Mean?

In short, the phrase “The buck stops here” means that a leader will never pass responsibility for something onto someone else, especially someone with less seniority. When the phrase is used nowadays, “responsibility” is often used to mean “taking responsibility” or “accepting blame.”

In a short article at The New Yorker, Dan Amira discussed why people may have been incorrectly using the phrase.

How Truman Used the Phrase

Amira quoted a paragraph from the Harry Truman Library’s website which displayed the way Truman used the phrase “The buck stops here.”

On more than one occasion President Truman referred to the desk sign in public statements. For example, in an address at the National War College on December 19, 1952 Mr. Truman said, “You know, it’s easy for the Monday morning quarterback to say what the coach should have done, after the game is over. But when the decision is up before you — and on my desk I have a motto which says The Buck Stops Here’ — the decision has to be made.” In his farewell address to the American people given in January 1953, President Truman referred to this concept very specifically in asserting that, “The President–whoever he is–has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That’s his job.

The Real Meaning of the Phrase

In short, Truman said that when a decision came to his desk, he promised never to pass that responsibility to others.

In that sense, Obama did not have to shoulder the blame for Benghazi. It might have been apt for Clinton to, as she was in charge of the State Department, which oversaw diplomatic compounds. Still, good leaders do not blame others, and it would not have been proper for Obama to blame Mrs. Clinton.

What Is the Origin of the Saying ‘The Buck Stops Here’?

The page at the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum website discusses the phrase President Harry S. Truman often used. The phrase was on a sign which sat on Truman’s Oval Office desk. On the other side of the sign was another sign with the phrase, “I’m from Missouri.”2

The painted glass signs, which were approximately 2 ½” × 13″ in size, were mounted on a walnut base. The desk decoration was manufactured in the Federal Reformatory at El Reno, Oklahoma.

Fred A. Canfil, who was the United States Marshal for the Western District of Missouri and one of Truman’s friends, had a sign made for him after visiting the reformatory. The sign was made to President Truman on October 2, 1945.

Now, the phrase did not originate with Truman. In 1942, Colonel A. B. Warfield was photographed at his desk when he was serving as commandant of the Lathrop Holding and Reconsignment depot in Stockton, California. The photograph appeared in an October 1942 story for the Reno Evening Gazette.3

In addition: The phrase itself was derived from another phrase, “pass the buck.”

How Did the Term ‘Pass the Buck’ Originate?

At The Phrase Finder, Gary Martin discussed the phrase “pass the buck.” He also linked it to Truman’s favorite phrase, “The buck stops here.”

The “buck” that is being referenced here is “an article used in the game of poker.” The term “buck” as it was used in this sense was coined in the western part of the United States during the latter half of the 19th century. Poker was gaining popularity at the time but players were suspicious of cheaters.

In order to reduce the chance for cheating, players had to take turns dealing the cards. And whenever it was someone’s turn to deal the cards, they would be given a a marker. The marker in this case was usually a knife, which likely had a buckhorn handle; it was called a buck for short. Thus, when that person’s time was up, they would have to “pass the buck” so the next person in line would deal.4

The earliest instance of the phrase “pass the buck” in writing (as a reference to poker) Martin was able to find was in a July 1865 edition of the Weekly New Mexican:

They draw at the commissary, and at poker after they have passed the ‘buck.’

Martin said the earliest instance of “pass the buck” being used in the figurative sense may be found in a May 1902 edition of The Oakland Tribune:

Dow — “When the public or the Council ‘pass the buck’ up to me I am going to act.”5

At Historically Speaking, Elyse Bruce shared pretty much all the information I found on this phrase and the other related ones. But she added that Mark Twain was known for using the phrase “passing the buck” when he worked as a reporter in Virginia City in 1862. Soon afterward, the phrase was used in the sense that someone was avoiding responsibility.


  1. Obama didn’t directly call the attack on the diplomatic compound an act of terrorism, but inferred it was when he spoke in the White House Rose Garden shortly after the attack.
  2. The phrase on the other side of Truman’s sign read, “I’m from Missouri.” That was short for “I’m from Missouri. Show me.” (Missouri is the “Show Me State.”)
  3. It is possible Warfield used the sign as early as 1931. That year, he was a quartermaster supply officer and general superintendent of the U.S. Army Transport Service of the New York General Army Depot.
  4. By the way, after a while, silver dollars were used as markers for poker. That is likely how the phrase “buck” came to be used for dollars.
  5. The Dow referred to here is probably the Oakland City Attorney W.A. Dow.

Works Cited

ABC News. “Second Presidential Debate 2012: Obama: Secretary Clinton Works For Me.” YouTube. 16 Oct 2016. Video. Retrieved 16 June 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F7B6FK6EnDI>.

Amira, Dan. “Everyone Is Butchering ‘the Buck Stops Here.’” The New Yorker. Oct 2012. Web. Retrieved 13 Oct 2017. <http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2012/10/buck-stops-here-clinton-obama-truman.html>.

Bruce, Elyse. “The Buck Stops Here.” Historically Speaking. 2 Dec 2010. Weblog. Retrieved 14 Oct 2017. <https://idiomation.wordpress.com/2010/12/02/the-buck-stops-here/>.

“EDITORIAL: Passing the buck on Benghazi.” The Washington Times. 16 Oct 2012. Web. Retrieved 13 Oct 2017. <http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/oct/16/passing-the-buck-on-benghazi/>.

Martin, Gary. “The buck stops here.” The Phrase Finder. Web. Retrieved 14 Oct 2017. <https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/the-buck-stops-here.html>.

Martin, Gary. “Pass the buck.” The Phrase Finder. Web. Retrieved 14 Oct 2017. <https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/pass-the-buck.html>.

McGreal, Chris. “Obama accused by GOP of shirking responsibility over Benghazi attack.” The Guardian. 16 Oct 2012. Web. <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/oct/16/obama-accused-benghazi-attack>.

McGreal, Chris. “Obama deflects Romney’s challenge on Benghazi attack during Hofstra debate.” The Guardian. 17 Oct 2012. Web. <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/oct/17/romney-obama-benghazi-defeated-debate>.

Rozen, Laura and Gerstein, Josh. “Obama: ‘The buck stops with me.’” Politico. 7 Jan 2010. Web. <http://www.politico.com/story/2010/01/obama-the-buck-stops-with-me-031259>.

The New York Times. “Election 2012 | Obama vs. Romney: Complete Second Presidential Town Hall Debate | The New York Times.” YouTube. 16 Oct 2012. Video. Retrieved 13 Oct 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEpCrcMF5Ps>.

“Truman: The Buck Stops Here.” Harry S. Truman Library & Museum. Web. Retrieved 13 Oct 2017. <https://www.trumanlibrary.org/buckstop.htm>.

Wright, Austin. “Obama: ‘The buck stops right here.’” Politico. 9 Nov 2014. Updated 11 Nov 2014. Web. Retrieved 13 Oct 2017. <http://www.politico.com/story/2014/11/obama-the-buck-stops-right-here-112713>.

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