Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The new Obama narrative

By George Lakoff

For the first two years of his administration, President Obama had no overriding narrative, no frame to define his policy-making, no way to make sense of what he was trying to do. As of his 2011 State of the Union Address, he has one: Competitiveness.

The competitiveness narrative is intended to serve a number of purposes at once:

(1)  Split the Republican business community off from the hard right, especially the Tea Party. Most business leaders want real economics not ideological economics. And it is hard to pin the “socialist” label on a business-oriented president. He may succeed.

(2)  Attract bi-conceptuals — those who are conservative on some issues and progressive on other issues. They are sometimes mistakenly called “moderates” or “independents,” though there is no one ideology of the moderate or the independent.  They make up 15 to 20 percent of the electorate, and many are conservative on economic issues and progressive on social issues. He attracted them in 2008 but not in 2010. He needs less than half to win in 2012. He may well succeed.

(3)   Competitiveness has five natural metaphors: A war, a race, a competitive sport, a competitive game, and dog-eat-dog predation.  The President’s “Sputnik moment” imposed the Cold War metaphor — one in which we are temporarily losing a world-wide economic war, but can catch up with mobilization.

(4)  The president implicitly, if not explicitly, declared economic war (“win”), asking for a complete long-term (“future”) economic mobilization. So, when the conservatives say, “No, investment just means spending, his narrative makes them unpatriotic. In a war, we have to all work together. And he is the Commander-in-Chief. He gets the moral authority.

(5)  As Commander-in-Chief, he gets to define how to win over the long haul. Here the race metaphor enters. We are “behind” other nations. We need to “catch up” in what is needed for long-term prosperity: education, infrastructure, research for innovation, clean energy. These aspects of the progressive agenda become a business agenda for defending the nation. This brings back his progressive base.

(6)   War-like competitiveness fits conservative not progressive thought. But there is a form of competitiveness that does fit progressive thought: Personal best! The race with oneself. It is what Obama has called The Ethic of Excellence in his great Father’s Day speech of 2008, where he defined democracy in terms of empathy, social and personal responsibility and a demand for excellence.

Can Obama make his competitiveness narrative fit sensible Republican businesspeople, the bi-conceptuals (“moderates” and “independents”), and his progressive base? Is it a narrative that will win his re-election? It may be.

But to really bring in the business community, he has to be convincing in what he does, not just what he says. Enter William Daley as chief of staff, and Jeff Immelt of GE running his jobs commission. Lowering the corporate tax rate (conservatives cheer), making up for it by cutting off oil subsidies and tax loopholes (progressives cheer), but evening the playing-field for most corporations that didn’t get subsidies and loopholes (conservative). Working on the deficit: A five-year freeze on “annual domestic spending” — red meat for conservatives (but not technically a “cut”). It’s “only” 12 percent of the budget. Cuts in the defense budget (progressive) but not very big or significant (conservative). This is Obama’s old promise — no red states or blue states, only red, white, and blue states. An economic cold war to wave the flag and declare unity of purpose.


Cross-posted from truthout, where you can continue reading George Lakoff’s post on this topic.