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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Fresh Framing Advice for Obama Campaign

Framing wizards George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling, authors of The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic, have some instructive messaging pointers for the Obama campaign from their book up at HuffPo. Some excerpts:

Obama’s strategy is to pin the Bush economic disaster on Romney, with good reason, since Romney has essentially the same policies as Bush. Since Obama has not consistently pinned the blame on Bush over the past four years, he comes off as defensive.
…Pinning the disaster on Bush is possible, but it will take a lot of repetition, not just by the president, but by Democrats in general. Not just a repetition of economic facts, but of the moral differences that led to both the Bush disaster and the Obama attempt to recoup.
Perhaps the most important omission from the Obama speech was any overt mention of The Public — everything that our citizenry as a whole provides to all, e.g., roads, bridges, infrastructure, education, protection, a health system, and systems for communication, energy development and supply, and so on. The Private — private life and private enterprise — depends on The Public. There is no economic freedom without all of this. So-called “free enterprise” is not free. A free market economy depends on a strong Public. This is a deep truth, easy to recognize. It undercuts Romney’s central pitch, that is it private enterprise alone that has made our country great, and that as much as possible of The Public should be eliminated.

Noting Romney’s near-demonization of government, the authors explain:

Although Obama intends to argue against this understanding, he unintentionally feeds it. He does so in three ways: First, by accepting and reinforcing many of Romney’s central frames (often by negating them); second, by moving to the right in his own argumentation; and third, by not spelling out his own moral principles explicitly right from the start.
First, here are three examples of Obama repeating Romney’s frames (in bold):
“Governor Romney and his allies in Congress believe deeply in the theory that the best way to grow the economy is from the top down.”
“They maintain that if we eliminate most regulations, if we cut taxes by trillions of dollars, if we strip down government to national security and a few other basic functions, the power of businesses to create jobs and prosperity will be unleashed and that will automatically benefit us all.”
Republicans “believe that if you simply take away regulations and cut taxes by trillions of dollars, the market will solve all of our problems on its own.”
Though Obama’s statements are supposed to be taken sarcastically, they actually are positive, straightforward, easy to understand versions of Romney’s positions and beliefs.

The authors fault Obama for using conservative-favoring terms like “spending” and “cutting taxes” in defending his positions, noting:

Language is important here, as well as policy. “Spending” is a conservative term; it suggests a needless draining of financial resources, a waste of money. But most of that money was “invested” in our people or used to maintain our infrastructure — not just “spent”. Though a tax reduction for working families may very well have been a good idea, the term “cutting taxes” is a conservative term, suggesting that taxes in general are bad and should be “cut.”

Ditto for the President’s listing his reforms:

…The president gives a long list of perfectly reasonable policies: ending oil subsidies, investing in education, hiring more teachers and pay them better, not deporting young immigrants, investing in clean energy, encouraging energy innovation, supporting R&D tax credits, rebuilding crumbling infrastructure, reforming the tax code, eliminating tax breaks for businesses that ship jobs overseas, strengthening Medicare and Medicaid, and so on.
No such list is going to be remembered by most of those who heard it. Moreover, what is said first matters; it sets the moral frame. In his speech, Obama first repeats the Romney frames, opposes them to numbers and policy lists, and only at the end talks about his own moral vision.

There is an alternative, say the authors:

Frame everything from his own moral perspective, including Romney’s positions and assumptions. Avoid the Romney language. Start with his own moral position, which he stated beautifully in his 2008 campaign but has since dropped: That democracy is based on empathy (citizens caring about fellow citizens), responsibility both for oneself and others, and an ethic of excellence (doing one’s best not just for oneself, but for one’s family, community, and country).
…Repeat the truth that The Private depends on The Public. It is The Public that provides economic freedom. Give a vision of responsible, progressive business. Talk freedom — as well as fairness. Point out that the hoarding of wealth by the 1 percent kills opportunity, as Joseph Stieglitz has discussed at length. Speak of an “Economy for All — not just rich bankers, managers, and job killers like private equity firms.” Yes, Romney and those like him are job killers. Say it. Point out that during the economic recovery of 2010, 93 percent of the additional income went to the richest 1 percent of taxpayers. Stop using “top” to mean rich. “Top” suggests high morality, merit, and ability. “Bottom” signifies the opposite.

As Lakoff and Wehling conclude, “We are now in a situation where conservatives have framed almost every issue. The least Democrats can do is to refuse to repeat their language and so help them.”

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