Out of the Woods / Reframing Obama
Published 1:13 pm, Tuesday, November 9, 2010
Ushered into office as a charismatic orator who had the potential of a Ronald Reagan or a Bill Clinton to move America forward, President Barack Obama -- ironically -- is now being criticized for failing to communicate in plain language what he has accomplished.
Despite his successes in passing landmark legislation and staving off another Great Depression with many of his bold economic moves, he has allowed Republicans to turn his accomplishments into negatives -- in effect, to "frame" his impact on the nation.
His failure, as some pundits suggested at his sobering press conference the day after elections last Wednesday, was not simply a failure to communicate. It was his failure, as Frank Rich of The New York Times said last Sunday, to articulate his programs clearly to the public. "You can't win an election without a coherent message," Rich wrote.
Obama allowed the Republicans to "frame" the debate about all of his proposals in negative terms. On "60 Minutes" Sunday night he conceded that the opposition had successfully "painted" him as a big spending, big government liberal. Further, he admitted he has not done a good job explaining himself. In the rush of "getting things done," he said, he overlooked his other role as president: to persuade voters that he is right and win their support.
Obama took a back seat last summer when Republicans went home and charged that his health care bill was a "big government takeover," that "death panels" would be created to decide who lives and who dies, and that "Obamacare" would increase the ballooning deficit rather than save money.
Republicans went on the offensive attacking the president's policies and, with help from the Tea Party, whipped voters into a partisan frenzy. Obama, perhaps naively, thought it would be better if a bipartisan Congress worked out the details of health reform and other measures he proposed. How wrong he was. His campaign pledge of "changing the way Washington does business" and for a new era of bipartisan ship was completely rebuffed by the Republicans.
I admire our young president's effort to reach out to the opposition these past two years.
But surely he must realize by now that they have no intention of cooperating. Even after the "shellacking," as he put it, that he took on Nov. 2, he is still talking about working together harmoniously with Congress. He has scheduled yet another meeting with them soon.
But the GOP leadership has already announced that their prime goal is to topple him from office in 2012. I don't think they will change their tune no matter how reasonable he is.
Instead, Obama must "reframe" his entire approach to governing by linking together all of the disparate actions he has taken into one persuasive vision that once again offers the kind of hope for the future on which he campaigned. He has to show some backbone. He has to learn to play big league politics and exercise the bully pulpit power of the presidency by going over Congress' head directly to the people with a clear, comprehensive message that explains how the pieces all fit together. Americans badly need him to move into high gear and do something dramatic to lift up their sprits. He must provide the leadership he promised and then ask the public to join in with him to "pull the car out of the ditch," to use his own analogy.
Some other examples of how Republicans successfully "framed" Obama's programs: they labeled as "an expensive bailout" loaning money to the banks so that our economic system would not collapse. They accused him of "taking over the auto industry" when he actually saved one of America's proudest legacies from collapsing.
They framed the initial $787 billion economic stimulus package (that actually saved 3.3 million jobs) as a "failure" because the unemployment rate has been intractable. They "framed" Obama's much-needed financial regulatory reform to curb the greed and immoral practices of Wall Street as "impeding the expansion of capitalism" and "big government overreach." The GOP attack on Obama as a "Socialist" was a framing lesson in turning his actions upside down to create panic, fear and disillusionment among voters. They succeeded.
The concept of "framing" originated in 2004 with the publication of a valuable political book, Don't Think of an Elephant!, Know Your Values and Frame and Debate, by George Lakoff, a much-heralded professor of science and linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. "Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world," Lakeoff writes in his book. "As a result they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as good or bad outcome of our actions. In politics, our frames shape our social policies and the institutions we form to carryout policies. To change our frames is to change all of this. Reframing is social change. Reframing is changing the way the public sees the world. Because language activates frames, new language is required for new frames. Thinking differently requires speaking differently."
Frank Rich cited the Truman analogy in his column as a remedy for Obama, referring to historian David McCullough's book, Truman, in which he wrote, "There was something in the American character that responded to a fighter."
Obama fought hard to get elected and raised the hopes of millions of Americans. He should return to his "Yes we can" theme as a fighter for the causes for which so many people -- including thousands of Westporters -- enthusiastically supported him in 2008.