Skip to main content

State of the Union 2014: The cognitive power of the President

George Lakoff, professor emeritus of linguistics | January 27, 2014

There are enough people guessing what the president will do. This is about what he almost certainly won’t do, but what I would like him to do.

The president has material power without the Congress, and personally, I would like to see him use it. He could issue an executive order for the government to grant contracts only to companies that pay their workers above some higher minimum wage. Or he could reject the XL pipeline on two national security grounds: its contribution to global warming and the dangers of leaks, explosions; and he could stop the virtual pipeline of dangerous tar sands and fracked oil shipments by train and waterway by insisting immediately on safe puncture-proof tanks. He could direct federal agencies to monitor and control dangerous chemical use and storage to prevent future versions the Great West Virginia Water Disaster. I would love to see him act in dozens, if not hundreds, of areas for the public good, and give the moral grounds in the State of the Union address.

President ObamaBeyond material power, the president has even greater power — cognitive power — and he hasn’t used it much. Cognitive power is the power to put important ideas in people’s minds by shaping public discourse. He has the unique power to change how America thinks simply by discussing crucial ideas over and over.

American democracy is based on empathy — citizens caring about other citizens and working through their government to provide public resources for all, making both decent lives and flourishing markets possible. He used to speak of empathy as “the most important thing my mother taught me.” But he was misinterpreted by conservatives and dropped this most central idea. He started talking, as Elisabeth Warren has so eloquently, about the crucial nature of public resources, but he messed up once (“You didn’t build it”) and stopped. He needs to take up that theme, get it right, and repeat it in every speech.

Talking points: the economy

We know he’s going to talk about economic inequality, as he should. He will probably mention worker salaries, which haven’t risen in 30 years. But he needs to state a simple truth: Workers are Profit Creators! Corporate “productivity” — the profit-per-worker — has risen, but the profit creators haven’t been getting a fair share of the profits.

One of the reasons for low salaries is that out of work workers can’t bargain for fair wages as individuals. The absence, or weakening, of unions leads to Wage Slavery: take what you are offered or someone else will. The president needs to talk about Wage Slavery and how unions offer freedom from wage slavery. This is a crucial idea missing from public discourse, especially in states where conservatives are trying to legislate wage slavery via so-called “Right to work laws,” which are actually exploitation laws. The president should be talking regularly about how unions contribute to freedom — and getting the unions themselves to talk about it. If the idea isn’t mentioned, it won’t enter the public mind.

Next, pensions. Pensions are delayed payments for work already done. Say it, Mr. President. When pensions are cut, the wages already earned by workers are being stolen. Pension funds are often taken by companies and local governments and spent on other things. That is theft. There needs to be transparency — public reporting yearly — on what is being done with pension funds. The president could issue and executive order that any company, state, or municipality receiving money from the government must adopt the transparency principle for pension funds.

The president has occasionally used the idea of investment where conservatives talk of “spending.” Drop “spending,” Mr. President. When you spend money, as when you buy a product, the money is gone. But when you invest, the money is still there. Paying for early childhood education is a wise major investment in the brains of our children. Remember that by the time a child is five or six years old, half of his or her neural connections have died off — the half least used. A child’s brain is shaped and developed in those important pre-K years. Funding serious pre-K is one of the most important investments out country could make. The investment isn’t gone. It is there in the child. Talk about brain shaping during pre-K, Mr. President. Every one in the country should know about it.

Talking points: climate change

Perhaps the most important cognitive power of the president concerns the global extreme climate crisis. There are important ideas that need to be in public discourse. First, nature is inside of us, not just outside, as the world “environment” suggests. We breathe air, drink water, and eat food. Pollutants and pesticides are in us, not somewhere else. They cause cancer and other illnesses. In a drought, as in California right now, you need water, clean water, to drink and raise food. In a major hurricane, water is can be deadly and devastating. Nature is in and around us, and supports all life. Don’t destroy it, poison it, or turn it into a destroyer.

NASA photo of Earth

Source: NASA

Coal, oil, and natural gas are immoral fuels, dirty fuels. Say it. Our planet, the only one we have — nature itself — is being sacrificed for short-term private profit. Yet, our government is negotiating a trade agreement that could outlaw all environmental laws, since it lets foreign nations sue when state or local environmental laws cut the corporate profits of foreign-owned corporations. It would be devastating to democracy, politically, since it gives up the sovereignty of our own people over their own lives. Don’t give in and repeatedly tell us why you are you won’t fast-track that treaty.

You can’t drink oil! Protect our water supplies from fracking, which both uses a huge amount of water per well, puts vast amounts of poison in that water, endangering water supplies. You can’t drink oil. Say it, Mr. President.

Species Are Us! We are part of the continuum of life with all species. Bees matter. Don’t let them die off. Songbirds matter. Frogs matter. Salmon matter.

Invite to the SOTU ten prominent pro-football players who have gotten lifelong brain damage from concussions received in football. Have them stand up in the balcony.

Finally, read labels out loud, Mr. President. Harmful chemicals are not just stored near West Virginia rivers. They are in our food, our cosmetics, and our toiletries. Use the Good Guide App in your SOTU and have Dara O’Rourke stand up and take a bow for inventing it. Introduce to the American people the idea of ENDOCRINE DISRUPTORS, chemicals that affect hormones. Read the Environmental Working Groups list of the dirty dozen, the 12 most dangerous, and tell everyone where they show up in your refrigerator, larder and medicine cabinet. Make sure Endocrine Disruptors are labeled as such, with a brief note pointing out that they affect hormones. Contribute to the health of our military and their families by an executive order keeping major endocrine disruptors off the shelves of PX’s and military hospitals. The cognitive and material powers can sometimes work hand-in-hand.

Cognitive powers may seem small, but used over time they can have major effects.

George Lakoff’s personal website is

Comments to “State of the Union 2014: The cognitive power of the President

  1. “…hundreds, of areas for the public good, and give the moral grounds in the State of the Union address.”

    I agree that the president isn’t taking enough actions when he could.

  2. I disagree that he has not used his cognitive power. He used it to push the ACA bill through. This has cost jobs. It will lead to much more expensive health care in the near term. It did not address at all the biggest money waster in US Health Care — malpractice lawsuits. This item is in dire need of reform. Such reform in Texas has cut down on the cost of health care; and it has not hurt the quality at all. Did Obama make an issue out of this? No! He also rabble roused about the banks so much that we now have more than 5000 pages of new banking laws. These are already hurting the US banking industry. They will hurt it more as they are more fully implemented. Excess bureaucracy is not good government. It is bad government that makes business, slower, more cumbersome, and less profitable. It drives jobs offshore, which FinReg has already done with many banking jobs. This is idiotic government that has stemmed directly from Obama’s use of “cognitive power”. Even Barney Frank said he wished the bill could have been at most 200 pages long (although it would have been added to later). The most important issues could have been dealt with. All the excess crap that every pedagogue in Washington had to add in to get his or her name in front of the media could have been left out. If these two are examples of “cognitive power”, I hope we can do without any more.

    As for the Keystone XL pipeline, there are already pipelines that travel approximately the same route. The Flanagan South pipeline will have an initial capacity of 600,000 bpd. It will expand to 775,000 bpd. It had little trouble with approval because it is going in right next to another Enbridge pipeline that is already there. The pipelines do not constitute huge environmental hazards. The Keystone XL pipeline would not either. We need the oil to be able to get to Texas (and other) refineries. Otherwise it will go to China (or other countries). It will pollute the world environment as much or more if it is refined there. It will cost more energy to ship it to China — more pollution. It will cost more energy for the US to import “sour” oil from Saudi Arabia (or elsewhere) instead of the “sour” crude from Canada. Yet the Texas refineries will still put out the same amount of pollution.

    Obama is no fool. He knows the power of rhetoric well. He wants to keep his party’s platform; but does that platform always make sense? Obama was a preppy, most of those guys, especially the lawyers, can talk (and talk well). Look at some recent presidents and candidates. Bush was from Phillips Andover — a top boarding prep school. Kerry was from St. Paul’s School — another top boarding prep school. It is no accident that these schools supply presidents. It is no accident that they know how to talk. It is no accident when they don’t talk.

    You could say that it is really the colleges that turn out these people. But really it is the high schools that form their character. Plus in my class at St. Paul’s School about 1/3 of the graduates went to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. That is leaving out all of the other Ivies. Virtually every graduate went to a 1st tier college. Of course, I had a talented class, but the school has been there for over 150 years; and it has been great for almost all of that time.

    You might give some thought to the real results of alternatives to the things you decry before you profess that they are the only thing that it makes sense to do. Building the Keystone XL pipeline would be good for US jobs, security, or the world environment, when you take the “likely” alternatives into account. You can spout “pie in the sky” dreams if you want; but they just won’t happen in practical reality. Instead you might try promoting more EV car use, etc.

  3. Professor Lakoff has a well-earned reputation as an expert on communicating political ideas, but he has stumbled in this essay. Barack Obama should NOT invoke slavery when discussing low-wage earners, and I hope I do not need to point out the obvious reason (other than the fact that each worker is free to quit any job that proves to be unsatisfactory).

    Rhetorical overkill works to no one’s long-term advantage, and if the president starts talking about “wage slaves,” some Republican will compare forced union membership to slavery.

  4. Thank you, George. Very well stated and I love your point about empathy. Somewhere along the way, America has lost track that people, not corporations, are the priority. We have become demonizers of our resources, our blessings, and our future.

    It’s too bad we have no one in Congress like you: intelligent and informed.

  5. Well said. Unfortunately, Mr. Obama fails to display any true sense of leadership. In every facet of this piece a leader should have the fortitude to stand up and stake a position. I believe these issues all ought to be hills a true leader is prepared to die upon.

    This President shifted into legacy mode about two years in and has no interest, nor desire, to actually make the effort to lead. Regrettably American society now judges leadership not based on retrospect to what has been achieved, but how perception poll answers mirror the pollsters narrow question.

    Please in 2016 send America a leader with values that are not defined by Gallup or Rassmussen or CNN.

  6. George, very well stated, especially your focus on empathy, economic inequality and the global extreme climate crisis.

    To protect and perpetuate an acceptable quality of life for “Species Are Us!” we must focus on actions such as:

    — Global conversations where we share information and produce implementable solutions for the good of all of Us.

    — Establish and practice universal standards of morality, including the Golden Rule, for all peoples and institutions to live by.

    — Implement worldwide female equality in all institutions so that empathy, economic equality and quality of life can be maximized throughout the world.

    Berkeley professors and scholars must join together to make the right things happen to protect us from social, political, economic and environmental self-destruction we are currently experiencing.

Comments are closed.