Cognitive linguist George Lakoff’s HuffPo post “How the State of the Union Worked” credits President Obama with an exceptionally lucid and compelling SOTU address:
Briefly, the speech worked via frame evocation. Not statement, evocation — the unconscious and automatic activation in the brains of listeners of a morally-based progressive frame that made sense of what the president said.
When a frame is repeatedly activated, it is strengthened. Obama’s progressive frame was strengthened not only in die-hard progressives, but also in partial progressives, those who are progressive on some issues and conservative on others — the so-called moderates, swing voters, independents, and centrists. As a result, 77 percent of listeners approved of the speech, 53 percent strongly positive and 24 percent somewhat positive, with only 22 percent negative. When that deep progressive frame is understood and accepted by a 77 percent margin, the president has begun to move America toward a progressive moral vision.
Lakoff sees significance in the telling response of the opposition to Obama’s SOTU. “John Boehner looked shamed as he slumped, sulking in his chair, as if trying to disappear” and “Marco Rubio’s response was stale and defensive: the old language wasn’t working and Rubio kept talking in rising tones indicating uncertainty.” He adds:
The president set his theme powerfully in the first few sentences…First, Obama recalled Kennedy — a strong, unapologetic liberal. “Partners” evokes working together, an implicit attack on conservative stonewalling, while “for progress” makes clear his progressive direction. “To improve it is the task of us all” evokes the progressive theme that we’re all in this together with the goal of improving the common good. “The grit and determination of the American people” again says we work together, while incorporating the “grit and determination” stereotype of Americans pulling themselves up by their bootstraps — overcoming a “grinding war” and “grueling recession.” He specifically and wisely did not pin the war and recession on the Bush era Republicans, as he reasonably could have. That would have divided Democrats from Republicans…Then he moved on seamlessly to the “millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not yet been rewarded,” which makes rewarding that work and determination “the task of us all.”
President Obama “provided a patriotic American progressive vision that seamlessly adapts the heart of the conservative message…We, the citizens, use the government to protect us and maximally enable us all to make use of individual initiative and free enterprise.” explains Lakoff. He gives Obama high marks for a well-paced conclusion:
And it was a smash finish! Highlighting his gun safety legislation by introducing one after another of the people whose lives were shattered by well-reported gun violence. With each introduction came the reframe “They deserve a vote” over and over and over. He was chiding the Republicans not just for being against the gun safety legislation, but for being unwilling to even state their opposition in public, which a vote would require. The president is all too aware that, even in republican districts, there is great support for gun safety reform, support that threatens conservative representatives. “They deserve a vote” is a call for moral accounting from conservative legislators. It is a call for empathy for the victims in a political form, a form that would reveal the heartlessness, the lack of republican empathy for the victims. “They deserve a vote” shamed the republicans in the House. As victim after victim stood up while the republicans sat slumped and close-mouthed in their seats, shame fell on the republicans.
And then it got worse for republicans. Saving the most important for last — voting reform — President Obama introduced Desiline Victor, a 102-year spunky African American Florida woman who was told she would have to wait six hours to vote. She hung in there, exhausted but not defeated, for many hours and eventually voted. The room burst into raucous applause, putting to shame the republicans who are adopting practices and passing laws to discourage voting by minority groups.
And with the applause still ringing, he introduced police officer Brian Murphy who held off armed attackers at the Sikh Temple in Minneapolis, taking twelve bullets and lying in a puddle of his blood while still protecting the Sikhs. When asked how he did it, he replied, “That’s just how we’re made.”
Putting the speech in perspective, Lakoff limns the power of Obama’s vision:
President Obama, in this speech, created what cognitive scientists call a “prototype” — an ideal American defined by a contemporary progressive vision that incorporates a progressive market with individual opportunity and initiative. It envisions an ideal citizenry that is in charge of the government, forcing the president and the Congress to do the right thing.
…The president can’t do it. Congress can’t do it. Only we can as citizens, by adopting the president’s vision, thinking in his moral frames, and speaking out from that vision whenever possible. Speaking out is at the heart of being a citizen, speaking out is political action, and only if an overwhelming number of us speak out, and live out, this American vision, will the president and the Congress be forced to do what is best for all.
Obama’s SOTU address was a transformative departure, in Lakoff’s view. “That is how the president has changed public discourse. He has changed it at the level that counts, the deepest level, the moral level.” The palpable discomfort of Republican leaders reacting to the SOTU address, alluded to by Lakoff, also indicates the power of the president’s frame — yet another testament that the president’s messaging has matured and he is rising to the challenge of his times.