US President Barack Obama (R) talks with Speaker of the House, John Boehner, R-Ohio, during a meeting with the bipartisan, bicameral leadership of Congress in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Sept. 9, 2014.
Jim Watson—AFP/Getty Images
January 8, 2015 4:04 PM EST

As he started his third term as Speaker of the House Tuesday, John Boehner noted that he hoped to find common ground with his fellow lawmakers. “All I ask is that we disagree without being disagreeable,” he said.

It was a quietly ironic moment, given that Boehner had just beaten back a conservative uprising from his own side of the aisle. But it was also perhaps a subtle olive branch to the White House.

After all, Obama gave nearly the exact same quote back in 2007 when he launched his presidential campaign, while talking about his time as a state legislator.

“It was here we learned to disagree without being disagreeable — that it’s possible to compromise so long as you know those principles that can never be compromised; and that so long as we’re willing to listen to each other, we can assume the best in people instead of the worst,” he said.

Or maybe Obama, who has a particular love of quoting President Reagan, was just borrowing a phrase from the Great Communicator. After all, Reagan said the same thing in 1981 while talking about his time as governor.

“Yes, we had disagreements over such things as welfare reform and budget allocation, but we followed the advice of a one-time mayor of Boston who said, ‘We can disagree without being disagreeable,'” he said.

Or maybe this is just one of those Washington clichés that never goes away. You can find politicians as diverse as former Sen. Bob Kerrey and Sen. John McCain using the phrase, which litters the Congressional Record, especially when senators are heaping praise on a retiring lawmaker.

According to The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, one of the earliest uses of the phrase was an anonymous person quoted in the Youngstown (Ohio) Vindicator in 1927. But while everyone in Washington seems to agree that it’s a good phrase to use, the broader question is whether they can act on it.

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