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The new Obama narrative

George Lakoff, professor emeritus of linguistics | January 28, 2011

For the first two years of his administration, President Obama had no overriding narrative, no frame to define his policy-making, no way to make sense of what he was trying to do. As of his 2011 State of the Union Address, he has one: Competitiveness.

The competitiveness narrative is intended to serve a number of purposes at once:

(1)  Split the Republican business community off from the hard right, especially the Tea Party. Most business leaders want real economics not ideological economics. And it is hard to pin the “socialist” label on a business-oriented president. He may succeed.

(2)  Attract bi-conceptuals — those who are conservative on some issues and progressive on other issues. They are sometimes mistakenly called “moderates” or “independents,” though there is no one ideology of the moderate or the independent.  They make up 15 to 20 percent of the electorate, and many are conservative on economic issues and progressive on social issues. He attracted them in 2008 but not in 2010. He needs less than half to win in 2012. He may well succeed.

(3)   Competitiveness has five natural metaphors: A war, a race, a competitive sport, a competitive game, and dog-eat-dog predation.  The President’s “Sputnik moment” imposed the Cold War metaphor — one in which we are temporarily losing a world-wide economic war, but can catch up with mobilization.

(4)  The president implicitly, if not explicitly, declared economic war (“win”), asking for a complete long-term (“future”) economic mobilization. So, when the conservatives say, “No, investment just means spending, his narrative makes them unpatriotic. In a war, we have to all work together. And he is the Commander-in-Chief. He gets the moral authority.

(5)  As Commander-in-Chief, he gets to define how to win over the long haul. Here the race metaphor enters. We are “behind” other nations. We need to “catch up” in what is needed for long-term prosperity: education, infrastructure, research for innovation, clean energy. These aspects of the progressive agenda become a business agenda for defending the nation. This brings back his progressive base.

(6)   War-like competitiveness fits conservative not progressive thought. But there is a form of competitiveness that does fit progressive thought: Personal best! The race with oneself. It is what Obama has called The Ethic of Excellence in his great Father’s Day speech of 2008, where he defined democracy in terms of empathy, social and personal responsibility and a demand for excellence.

Can Obama make his competitiveness narrative fit sensible Republican businesspeople, the bi-conceptuals (“moderates” and “independents”), and his progressive base? Is it a narrative that will win his re-election? It may be.

But to really bring in the business community, he has to be convincing in what he does, not just what he says. Enter William Daley as chief of staff, and Jeff Immelt of GE running his jobs commission. Lowering the corporate tax rate (conservatives cheer), making up for it by cutting off oil subsidies and tax loopholes (progressives cheer), but evening the playing-field for most corporations that didn’t get subsidies and loopholes (conservative). Working on the deficit: A five-year freeze on “annual domestic spending” — red meat for conservatives (but not technically a “cut”). It’s “only” 12 percent of the budget. Cuts in the defense budget (progressive) but not very big or significant (conservative). This is Obama’s old promise — no red states or blue states, only red, white, and blue states. An economic cold war to wave the flag and declare unity of purpose.


Cross-posted from truthout, where you can continue reading George Lakoff’s post on this topic.

Comments to “The new Obama narrative

  1. It’s hard not to feel some disappointment in the Obama administration, even though its difficulties were admittedly impossible.

  2. Thanks for this analysis on the State of the Union address. It’s timing in Ohio is just a few days prior to the filing deadline of potential candidates seeking public office.

    I especially liked your analysis of the “competitiveness” frame with its five metaphors: A war, a race, a competitive sport, a competitive game, and dog-eat-dog predation. Your colleague and our mutual friend, Joe Brewer, has encouraged the re-framing of our election process away from a “transaction” model of citizen participation to an “engagement” model.

    Here in our rural county of Ohio both parties conduct primary and general election “races.” I was suggesting to a friend seeking public office for the first time to think about how s/he will “frame” her electoral participation.

    What would be a more collaborative frame for the electoral process and would a more empathic frame for it help the progressive cause.

  3. Professor Lakoff, what is the value of this narrative?

    > beat back conservatives to gain key constituents to win the next election – this supposes that the voters get the message delivered in its ideological form
    > push the electorate to accept the progressive or conservative ideology so as to move America left or right (what it seems like conservatives have been doing since the 1970s)?

    Isn’t it enough to respond together apolitically to address the most pressing issues of our time? These ideologies and their lexicons seem to be the most inefficient way of governing.

    Why isn’t ideology secondary to doing what is right? In other words, how can any party reject mounds of scientific evidence that climate change exists – what if we are wrong? Get a house on mt. Tam?

    How does anyone know that a preempting environmental effort will not lead to a booming market which creates millions of jobs?

    With the depression throughly studied and the recent economic calamity we are still experiencing, how can anyone be against regulation? Is there a valid conservative response?

    I don’t get why the successful manipulation of ideology and coded language trumps common sense (this word is owned by the republicans, I know) and a co-operative effort. Is this an independent? A Ross Perot or a bi-conceptual?

    Thank you Professor Lakoff.

  4. Professor, I appreciate what you are saying, the competitive imperative is a most crucial priority for America today, but there is also a much higher priority which we are nowhere close to dedicating ourselves to solving, seemingly heading further away from achieving as time continues to fly by:

    Do Humans Have What It Takes To Survive by achieving world peace and producing quality of life for all? Achieving worldwide quality of life most certainly gives us a most important opportunity to be most successful in achieving the goals of Obama’s competitiveness narrative, but world peace continues to be more and more impossible.

    When I graduated in 1963 we had every right and reason to believe that we could achieve worldwide peace and prosperity by the end of the 20th century.

    Then Johnson lied us into the Viet Nam War, destroying all our hopes and dreams one more time, and Nixon made things even worse. Until recently I thought Johnson and Nixon were the worst presidents in my lifetime, but now Clinton and Bush have proven to be even worse leaders, seemingly producing conditions that make world peace and prosperity an incredibly impossible dream.

    And we are experiencing hellaciously destructive consequences of global warming already in this new millennium, in addition to all the other problems we failed to solve in the 20th century. Of course, global warming provides another opportunity to achieve Obama’s competitiveness narrative, but we are nowhere close to beginning to eliminate the causes of global warming even though Keeling tried to warn us half a century ago. And daily news reports keep proving that we may never survive long enough to achieve world peace.

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