Friday, February 15, 2013

More on the SOTU

Linguist George Lakoff is giving President Obama a lot of credit for using a progressive framing more consistently these days in How the State of the Union Worked Huffington Post 02/15/2013.

I do think he has a point. Obama campaigned in 2008 on a high-sounding but vague hope-and-change message. In 2012, he needed to invoke and more explicit progressive theme, which he eventually managed to do:

By the 2013 Inaugural Address, he directly quoted the Declaration and Lincoln, overtly linking patriotism and the essence of democracy to empathy, to Americans caring for one another and taking responsibility for one another as well as themselves. He spoke overtly about how private success depends on public provisions. He carried out these themes with examples. And he had pretty much stopped making the mistake of using conservative language, even to negate it. The change in public discourse became palpable.

The 2013 SOTU followed this evolution a crucial step further. Instead of stating the frames overly, he took them for granted and the nation understood. Public discourse had shifted; brains had changed. So much so that John Boehner looked shamed as he slumped, sulking in his chair, as if trying to disappear. Changed so much that Marco Rubio's response was stale and defensive: the old language wasn't working and Rubio kept talking in rising tones indicating uncertainty.
But good framing only goes so far. Good advertising can get the customer in the door, but if the product doesn't deliver as expected, they'll look for something new.

I also think Lakoff may be too optimistic about Obama's conversion to more consistent progressive framing. After all, he is still emphasizing the importance of reducing the deficit, reinforcing the Republicans' preferred context/framing for economic policy. And he's offering up cuts in benefits on Social Security and Medicare. And he signaled very strongly that he wasn't going to make a serious push himself for an assault weapons ban, much less use that issue to discredit the NRA and the Republicans who embrace their crackpot worldview.

The substantive issues of economic policy and highly popular programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid matter. A lot.

Progressive framing to sell progressive policies is one thing. Progressive framing to sell austerity economics and benefit cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is something very different.

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