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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Lakoff: Obama’s Vision of ‘the Public’ Should be Front and Center in Messaging

George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling, authors of “The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic,” offer Dems some messaging points in their HuffPo post on “Obama’s and Romney’s Opposed Visions for a Free America.” Among the authors more salient observations:

…President Obama recently reminded us that private life, private enterprise, and personal freedom depend on what the public provides…”The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. (…) when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own… there are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the GI Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam…That’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people…”
Obama is acknowledging an important truth about American private life and enterprise: It builds on the public. From the beginning, the American public jointly created the means for knowledge, health, commerce, and recreation: Schools and libraries, hospitals, public roads, bridges, clean water and sewers; a federal banking system, a system of interstate commerce, public buildings and records, a court system mostly for commercial disputes, an army and a navy, police and firemen, public playgrounds and parks. The American public has always provided such things to promote private business and individual freedom.
More recently, the public has added funding for food safety and public health, university research, telecommunications, urban development, and subsidies for corporate profit in corporate-run industries like energy, agribusiness, and military contracting. There are thousands of ways, large and small, in which the public, all of us acting together, provides the essentials for individual freedom and opportunity and thriving businesses.
…The President states a simple truth here. Business owners across America do not build their own roads and bridges, sewers and water systems; they do not single-handedly maintain the health of their employees; they do not finance their own court system; and they did not build their own Internet to market and sell their products. The public provides these things, together. The government manages our shared financial resources to make these things happen. That’s the government’s job.

The authors concede that that “Obama could have communicated this fact better,” and argue that, “In the conservative worldview, the public’s role for personal success is largely hidden or ignored. Instead, conservatives have a different vision of what America should be: everyone ought to look out for him- or herself…”
Going forward, Wehling and Lakoff call on progressives to hone their messaging about the proper role of government: and the Republican ‘alternative’:

What the conservatives are missing, and what Obama and progressives and Democrats across the country should communicate clearly, is this: Maintaining a robust public provides the conditions for a decent life and for individual success. This is about giving citizens the freedom to succeed. And the contributions of individuals to the public are a way to show commitment to both their own continuous success and to the American nation as a whole.
This is a central issue, not a minor one. It underlies the political division in our country. Obama and the Democrats want to continue the public provisions upon which freedom and material success has been built in our nation. Romney and conservative Republicans want to dismantle the public, and would thereby end the freedoms, the opportunities, and the conditions for success that the public provides.
…The future of our nation is at stake. We must openly and regularly talk about the function of the public. And we must repeat the fact that the public constitutes the people working together to better their lives. The public is, and has always been, requisite for our freedom, our success, and our humanity as a nation. Every candidate for office and every patriotic American should be saying this out loud, over and over. The role of the public is the central issue in this election. It is the issue that will determine our future.
We dare not be intimidated by conservative misrepresentations. Our message is clear. It is obvious if you think about it. But it has to be repeated clearly and effectively. The president and all who believe in the promise of America need to go on the offensive on this issue. We cannot afford to be defensive about what is required for our freedom, our prosperity, and our sense of humanity.

It’s a bold shift in Dems’ messaging strategy, emphasizing a positive vision and role for government over negative attacks against the opponent. But if Lakoff and Wehling are right, voters will respond in a way that increases the Democratic party’s credibility — and influence.

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