According to Maureen Dawd’s article titled “Field of Dashed Dream’ appearing on August 16 New York Times, President Obama took a strong verbal punch on the chin from a woman supporter at a town hall meeting at the Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa. She asked the President "what had gone wrong" with him, and continued:

“So when you ran for office you built a tremendous amount of trust with the American people, that you seemed like someone who wouldn’t move the bar on us. --- And it seems as if your negotiating tactics have sort of cut away at that trust by compromising some key principles that we believed in, like repealing the tax cut, not fighting harder for single-payer. Even Social Security and Medicare seemed on the line when we were dealing with the debt ceiling.”

I don’t understand what ‘move the bar on somebody’ mean. I checked the meaning of this phrase on the Google, but couldn’t find out any definition.

  • Possibly related to "move the goalposts", with the meaning "We thought we knew your objectives, but they've changed". But I'm not certain, because it's a usage which is new to me. Aug 17, 2011 at 8:47
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    Agreed. Normally, you raise the bar and move the goalposts. But if you get confused, you might move the bar and raise the goalposts. Aug 17, 2011 at 10:04
  • @PeterTaylor Similar. To "move the goalposts" is a football metaphor meaning to unfairly make the target something other than what's expected. To "raise the bar" is a similar metaphor from high-jump, with the subtle difference that raising the bar is a legal part of the sport, and thus has less of the "unfair" connotation. In this example, I think they're aiming for the idea of unfairness or underhandedness, so as Peter Shor suggests, they've mixed their metaphors and should have used "move the goalposts". Jul 25, 2014 at 10:47

3 Answers 3


I think that the woman is coining metaphors based on the phrase, raise the bar. To raise the bar means:

to set a higher standard for other people to follow

So, if you raise the bar you are raising standards--the "bar" is a metaphor for those standards. To then say that someone is moving the bar implies that someone is shifting the standards around, and not necessarily for the better.

The woman is saying that, when Obama was elected, he promised to stand by X standards. Now, however, he has moved the bar on people and is now standing by Y standards. In other words, he is being weasely and not sticking by the standards he set.

I don't think this is standard English, so I wouldn't use it in conversation.

Edit: @Phoenix brings up the related metaphor moving the goalposts which is more common. It means:

changing the target of a process or competition by one side in order to gain advantage.

Unlike moving the bar on us, which may be more regional, this phrase seems a lot more common. A quick Google Ngram yields:

enter image description here

You could definitely use this phrase in conversation to describe this situation, and it is possible that because it is more common you would be more widely understood.

  • @Simchona. Thank you very much for your quick answer. I guessed ‘move the bar’ means ‘move one’s stand or change the standards,’ but got confused with adjunct ‘on us.’ Aug 17, 2011 at 8:51
  • @Yoichi: I think the woman felt that by moving the bar, they were being betrayed in some sense--thus "on us", as if the action was taken against them.
    – user10893
    Aug 17, 2011 at 8:53
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    I've heard the phrase all my life here in Georgia. And yes, it does mean pretty much exactly what you said, usually with negative connotations. Usually it's something like someone sets a requirement to do something, then when you fulfill the requirement, they add on more requirements. Like, what's that old greek myth, where the guy wants to marry the king's daughter and the king says you have to go and kill such and such horrible monster thinking that he'll die in the attempt, but then he succeeds, so the king gives him another test, and he succeeds, and then another test, etc.
    – Phoenix
    Aug 17, 2011 at 8:55
  • @Phoenix: Interesting--I couldn't find that use online either, but I'm glad I got it pretty much right. Thank you for providing some more context to the phrase. (And do you mean Hercules?)
    – user10893
    Aug 17, 2011 at 8:57
  • No, it's not Hercules, he was told upfront that there would be a number of trials for him to atone for his crimes. I just can't remember the guy's name, I usually have an encyclopedic memory for this sort of thing.
    – Phoenix
    Aug 17, 2011 at 9:22

It's a misspoken version of "raise the bar", which originates from the high jump competition of athletics, when the "bar is raised" to the next height, making it harder to clear. In broader usage, "raising the bar" means that the minimum required standards in the context have been increased.

  • Yes, to the reference to field sports: high jump (and pole vault. And yes to the notion of "nor
    – lex
    Oct 19, 2012 at 9:48

It's a conflation of "raise the bar" and "move the goalposts" -- both idioms from (sports metaphor) for changing the goal, generally to make the challenge harder.

"Raise the bar" has a connotation of fairness: the bar is raised as part of the larger contest as people succeed at the old way; akin to an old record being broken, so now people are trying to break the new record. ("Raise the bar" is often said of the person who achieved greatness by the old standard, and thus set the new standard.)

"Move the goalposts" (or goal line) has a connotation of unfairness: the goal was set, attempts were begun, and before they could be played out, the standards by which the outcome would be judged was changed.

In this case, I believe the speaker meant something more like the latter.

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    The Ngram in the answer by @simchona shows a spike in the early 1980s. It seems highly likely that this is because in American football, the professional league literally moved the goalposts farther back. "The NFL kept the post at the goal line until 1974, when they were moved back to the rear of the end zone." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Field_goal Mar 12, 2015 at 6:34

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