To “pussyfoot” is to proceed with caution; to move warily but steadily.; or sidestep an issue as to not take a side. It is almost always used in a pejorative sense and, as such, its synonyms include equivocating, hedging, or even weaseling.
Someone who pussyfoots around an issue does not want to express an opinion about the issue, usually because it could be controversial and could lead to a problem.
The term dates back to at least 1893; that’s when Scribner’s Magazine wrote about “men who were beginning to walk pussy-footed and shy at shadows.” The expression comes from the soft steps of a cat. President Theodore Roosevelt popularized the term around 1905, using it to refer to men he believed were excessively cautious and sneaky.
At the same time, one member of Theodore Roosevelt’s own administration may have done even more to popularize the term “pussyfoot.” William Johnson, who helped to fight against bootlegging and illegal alcohol sales in Indian Territory, was better known as Pussyfoot Johnson. He was charged with ending all liquor sales in the territories, and, predictably, the job won him enemies all over. That’s why Johnson started doing his work at night. He apparently crept around at night much like a cat, with great stealth, earning the nickname “Pussyfoot.”
Johnson was an ardent Prohibitionist, and his fellow prohibitionists came to be known as “pussyfooters” as well. The term “pussyfoot” is almost never used in that sense today.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter pledged his support for Polish workers who were in the midst of organizing. Carter’s administration vowed to help Polish labor unions, but they also worried about upsetting the balance of power between Polish workers and Soviet authorities. Meanwhile, Lane Kirkland, the head of the AFL-CIO, vowed to move forward with a fund to help labor unions in Poland. Kirkland said, “the free trade union movement cannot advance on little cat feet. I will not accept the suggestion that we pussy foot about it at all.”
Decades later, in 2016, Sarah Palin used the term “pussyfooting” when she endorsed Donald Trump for president. Palin, the one-time vice presidential candidate and Alaska governor, said that with Trump there would be “no more pussyfooting around!” Merriam Webster reported that after Palin’s speech there was a sudden spike in searches for the word in their dictionary.
Palin was implying that President Obama had been “pussyfooting around,” and she wasn’t the only person to use that term. Certain pundits later praised President Trump for taking action in Iraq instead of “pussyfooting around,” as they believed Obama had done in Libya following the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi.
At the same time, President Trump’s opponents accused him of pussyfooting around issues that were inconvenient to him. Senator Amy Klobuchar, for one, claimed that Trump had been avoiding dealing with questions about Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. “I think it would have been much more powerful to have that sanctions bill in his hand, and have that signed that into law and not pussyfoot around the fact that it was Russia that tried to interfere in our elections, as the president did in his answers to the questions,” Klobuchar told Meet the Press.