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Tuesday July 3rd 2012

Lakoff Slams Obama’s Dreadful Messaging

In mid-August my book on persuasion and communications will come out. I’ve been working on it for a quarter century (!) and it is easily my most useful and best written book. So I’ll be writing more about persuasion and messaging over the next few months.

While many people thought Obama was a great communicator when he was elected, in fact he is mostly a good speechmaker — when he puts in a lot of effort, which he rarely does anymore.

His messaging has been dreadful for most of his presidency, and he has delivered far too few memorable lines or speeches. Based on my discussions with leading journalists, as well as current and former Administration staff, this White House is the worst at communications in the past 3 decades (see “Relax, climate hawks, it’s not about the science. The White House is just lousy at messaging in general“).

Indeed, the Obama WH is the worst of both possible worlds.  They are dreadful at messaging BUT they think they are terrific at messaging, so much so that they shut down anybody else in the administration that might actually be good at messaging. How else to explain things like “public option” and “cap-and-trade” and “winning the future”? (see “Can Obama deliver health and energy security with a half (assed) message?“)

Last week linguist George Lakoff co-authored a good HuffingtonPost piece dismantling Obama’s big economic kickoff speech in Ohio. The whole piece is worth reading but let me just focus on the most elemental mistake —  repeating your opponent’s message.

It is now very well known from the social science literature that you can’t debunk a myth by repeating it with a simple negation — see “The difficulty of debunking a myth” and “The Debunking Handbook Part 1: The First Myth About Debunking.” In fact, the literature suggests that for many people that merely reinforces the myth over time.

But here we have Obama just repeating Obama’s main point/narrative/frame, particularly on regulations. As Lakoff explains, Obama “unintentionally feeds” Romney’s narrative, in part “by accepting and reinforcing many of Romney’s central frames (often by negating them)”:

First, here are three examples of Obama repeating Romney’s frames (in bold):

“Governor Romney and his allies in Congress believe deeply in the theory that the best way to grow the economy is from the top down.

“They maintain that if we eliminate most regulations, if we cut taxes by trillions of dollars, if we strip down government to national security and a few other basic functions, the power of businesses to create jobs and prosperity will be unleashed and that will automatically benefit us all.

Republicans “believe that if you simply take away regulations and cut taxes by trillions of dollars, the market will solve all of our problems on its own.

Though Obama’s statements are supposed to be taken sarcastically, they actually are positive, straightforward, easy to understand versions of Romney’s positions and beliefs.

Bad, bad, bad.

Many listeners are simply likely to remember the wrong message, the wrong frame, days after the speech. It boggles the mind that literally 2500 years after the Greeks figured out — and codified — the art of verbal persuasion, and more than 400 years after the Elizabethans spelled it all out in English, people who are supposed to be sophisticated at communications don’t know this basic stuff. That of course is precisely why I wrote my book: Progressives, who generally have a superior story to tell, are doing a lousy job of telling it.

The frame on regulations, at least environmental regulations, is that we are trying to protect clean air, clean water, and the health of our kids. Allowing polluters to pollute unrestricted doesn’t lead to  prosperity it leads to health problems and reduced productivity.  The president shouldn’t be wasting precious time in his speeches repeating right-wing talking points on regulations but should be strongly making the progressive case for clean air and clean water.

As an important aside, Obama used to give infinitely better speeches on this 3 years ago:

  • Obama gets the Ponzi scheme (4/09): “The choice we face is not between saving our environment and saving our economy. The choice we face is between prosperity and decline…. We can allow climate change to wreak unnatural havoc across the landscape, or we can create jobs working to prevent its worst effects.
  • “We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand.” (4/09)
  • “We can let the jobs of tomorrow be created abroad, or we can create those jobs right here in America and lay the foundation for our lasting prosperity.” (3/09)

For more critiques of Obama’s messaging, see “Must-Read Drew Westen Op-Ed Spells Out Obama’s Catastrophic Failure of Messaging” and Robert Becker’s ”Obama Team: “We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Messages.”

Stay tuned to these pages for more on the book and on persuasion in general.

This article was originally posted on Climate Progress