Can Obama deliver health and energy security with a half (assed) message?

Here a quiz:

1)  What’s worse from a messaging perspective, “the public option” or “cap-and-trade”?

2) Tell me in one sentence what team Obama says is the benefit of passing a health care reform bill.

3)  Tell me in one sentence what team Obama says happens if we fail to pass the climate and clean energy bill.

On health care, no simple, repeated core message exists, so the whole effort is a muddle.  Obama needs to delete and reboot.  Let’s hope he does so Wednesday night.

On climate, at least we have one positive message:  clean energy jobs, jobs, jobs.  That is a key reason public support has held firm even in the face of a multimillion dollar campaign of fraud and disinformation by the fossil-fuel-funded right wing (see Yet another major poll finds “broad support” for clean energy and climate bill: “Support for the plan among independents has increased slightly” and Swing state poll finds 60% “would be more likely to vote for their senator if he or she supported the bill” and Independents support the bill 2-to-1).

Normally, however, a winning campaign has four messages, as I discussed in this post from a year ago, “Can Obama win with half a messaging strategy?”  Since team Obama got its messaging act together pretty fast after its near-fatal lameness of August 2008, I’m hopeful they will do the same after the near-fatal lameness of August 2009, since I don’t think they can deliver health security and energy security with half a message (or less).

Let me repeat what I consider to be Messaging 101, which apparently has been lost again by team Obama and progressive leaders.

As psychologist and Political Brain author Drew Westen explained in Huffington Post during the 2008 campaign:

There is a simple fact about elections that has eluded Democrats in every presidential campaign they have lost in the last 40 years: that as a candidate, you have to focus first and foremost not on a litany of “issues” but on four stories: the story you tell about yourself, the story your opponent is telling about himself, the story your opponent is telling about you, and the story you are telling about your opponent. Candidates who offer compelling stories in all four quadrants of this “message grid” win, and those who leave any of them to chance generally lose.

I’d actually put it a little differently. You need a story about yourself and a story about your opponent. And you need a counterpunch to your opponent’s stories about himself and about you. Ideally, the stories can be boiled down to a catchy slogan (“it’s the economy, stupid”) or one or two words (“compassionate conservative”) that make use of the memorable figures of speech from the 25-century-old art of persuasion aka rhetoric (see “Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 1“). Same for the counterpunch (“He was for it before he was against it.”).

The word “story” here is roughly equivalent to two other popular terms — “frame” (as George Lakoff uses the term) or “narrative.”  It is also equivalent to rhetoric’s “extended metaphor,” which I argue is the most important figure of speech in my not-yet-bestselling unpublished manuscript, Politics, Religion, and the English Language (see “How Lincoln framed his picture-perfect Gettysburg Address, 4: Extended metaphor“).

Good candidates will pound away with a strong positive extended metaphor of why you should vote for them and with an equally strong negative extended metaphor of why you should not vote for their opponents. Winning two-term candidates, like President George W. Bush with the help of Karl Rove, will have a counter-punch to their opponent’s positive and negative extended metaphors. The counterpunches always use the same figure of speech — dramatic irony, wherein someone’s words unintentionally mean something quite different from (and often opposite to) what they intended (see “How to be as persuasive as Abe Lincoln, Part 2: Use irony, the twist we can’t resist“).

The goal is to find a powerful dramatic irony in their opponents’ words or deeds that blow up the opposition’s own extended metaphor. That always makes a great story, since it is satisfying sport for people to be hoist with their own petard or for people to be uncovered as a hypocrite.

Think Michael Dukakis in an army tank, or President Bush on the aircraft carrier with the “Mission Accomplished” banner in the background, or the Swift Boat ads run against John Kerry. Dramatic irony is the key to understanding both popular culture and politics — but that is another post.

What conservatives have figured out is that since the media doesn’t really police the truth in a meaningful fashion, you can pretty much take whatever your opponent says out of context and turn that into a defining dramatic irony. Or just make stuff up entirely.

The other point of having the four stories or frames or extended metaphors is that it makes responding to attacks very easy. If you know your messages, then whenever the other side launches a phony attack, you just frame the response with one of your narratives.

Of course, if your opponent has no positive plan, which is true in both health care reform and climate change (though not entirely true on energy), then your messaging job should be easier — but only if you are willing to be very blunt about what happens if we do nothing.  In the case of global warming, of course, many people on our side have been duped by dubious polling and focus groups and dial groups into polling their punches on the climate science message (see “Messaging 101b: EcoAmerica’s phrase ‘our deteriorating atmosphere’ isn’t going to replace ‘global warming’ “” and that’s a good thing” and Mark Mellman must read on climate messaging: “A strong public consensus has emerged on the reality and severity of global warming, as well as on the need for federal action” “” ecoAmerica “could hardly be more wrong”).

I won’t spend much time on health care.  Like the 99% of people who aren’t expert on health care reform, I have no idea what Obama’s plan is nor what it would actually do.  I do know that most people could care less about the uninsured — they just don’t want to join that group — and while people may say they want cost containment, in fact they don’t want their own costs “contained,” they only want their premiums lower.

What Obama needs to sell is health security.  I was glad to see David Axelrod repeat the word “security” in his health reform pitch on “Meet the Press” this morning.  That suggests to me they are starting to do some serious message polling.

In the next few weeks, I will lay out all four climate and clean energy stories.


12 Responses to Can Obama deliver health and energy security with a half (assed) message?

  1. Jeff Huggins says:

    I’m all for clear communication. And I’m all for clear thinking. And for courage. And for being prepared. And for the notion that the best defense — and the best approach in general — is often to have an excellent offense.

    (By the way, the Message at the top made me think I did something wrong with my computer. Of course, I get it, but it took me awhile.)

    One thing to add, however: In considering and developing the “four parts” of the message, let’s not forget that compelling facts, communicated well and frequently, given the sincerity and weight they deserve, can and should still “move” humans. Humans can still “get it” if we just say it, accurately and clearly and sincerely enough. So, let’s not (hopefully) get overly caught up in our own “stuff” as we adopt the latest view from the communications theorists.

    AND, for sure, let’s not accept low standards and dismal effectiveness from the media. There are real, and important, stakes involved here, yes? In my view, if The New York Times and other media don’t get their acts together — QUICK — then they will not only lose my business, but I’ll ALSO feel that their leaders should all move to sea level on some island somewhere — wherever the weather is likely to get the hottest and wherever the sea will rise the soonest. The media have a responsibility to society. If they live up to it, bravo. If they don’t, that’s bad, and we should note names.

    I’m sorry to say that, but if the scientists are correct, then it’s necessary to say at this point.

    The reason I bring it up (again) now is this: Ideally, it really shouldn’t be necessary, by now, for people to be wrestling with the “ideal” four-message communications strategy. If the media were doing their job, and if we were all doing our jobs as humans, by now we would be addressing the climate and energy problems. We let the media off the hook FAR TOO MUCH. And we let some companies off the hook FAR TOO MUCH. The net result is not only the big problems themselves — climate, energy, health care, etc. — but it’s also that we end up having to do the job that the MEDIA should be doing. Really, that shouldn’t make us happy.

    On what day will more people call a serious boycott of ExxonMobil? On what day will we all stop buying The New York Times, if they don’t get their act together first, that is? I’m in favor of NOW for ExxonMobil. Regarding The New York Times, I’m in favor of giving them two more weeks.



  2. David B. Benson says:

    I rather like

    Medicare for all!

  3. ecostew says:

    Actually, I also thought I had a computer issue.

    Relative to health care, the Administration has not put out a crisp US performance vs OECD countries message:; and has not followed with a crisp message on how his/Congress’s proposal will enhance US performance, which is disgraceful in terms of $s spent and outcome. By the way, we have elements in our health care system that reflect all three of the best international approaches and leave millions uninsured and our costs are 40-60% higher than theirs. The Administration/Congress went down the legislative sausage-making path and the R/corporate interests caught them in the messy process in August. Ds need a quick crisp re-boot message and I hope we get it this week.

    Relative to climate change/energy security, as we know global energy security is a huge issue (including associated securities: e.g., food, water, health, & ecosystems [including ocean acidification]), which we cannot drill/mine our way out of in any fashion because of peak fossil fuel/demand issues. AGW is primarily a response to our fossil fuel use, which releases GHGs, and exacerbates our security issues with increasing intensity. Crafting national/international agreements is a very difficult task in the US with R/corporate interests (for $s) attempting to obfuscate the peer-reviewed science, which must inform the decision-making processes. In addition in the US, we have corporate interests attempting game the legislative process for maximum corporate profit. Another point is that the US has by far the greatest per capita/total net GHG emissions making international push-back on per capita emissions in countries like China and India as part of the December meeting difficult. It seems China is beginning to approach the table for the meeting, but that US R/corporate interests are not ready. So, what is the crisp message? I am not sure that one does exist unless one focuses on an aggressive near-term renewable energy bill (with efficiency/conservation) that moves us forward to mitigate AGW.

  4. ecostew says:

    Well, something like this might work – natural disasters caused by AGW:

  5. socle says:

    I certainly hope the Obama team follows your excellent advice, Joe.

    I would like to add, however, that we have to hold the general public responsible in this process as well.

    I recently attended a town hall meeting held by one of our US senators, and it was a depressing experience. The majority of questions and comments were from ill-informed people rambling on about how Obama is a Marxist, how the UN is going to take over our schools, how Obama has appointed over 30 “Czars”, many of which are radical communists, etc.

    If these people backed up their assertions with some evidence and a coherent argument, that would be one thing, but most were just spewing talking points they heard from Glenn Beck or “researched” on the internet. And no matter how well Obama hones his message, these wingnuts are essentially unreachable, because they suck at evaluating evidence. This is a critical problem, IMHO.

  6. ecostew says:

    Actually socle, in terms of health care it isn’t being informed by the science, the data are there in terms of cost/performance with different national health approaches (and quite frankly the US sucks) and Ds haven’t put it out there in terms of an elevator cost-savings sound bite goal from the beginning. The Rs captured the public with misinformation during August because Ds went home in the midst of legislative process without being anchored in a solidly anchored sound-bite goal. They should have started with the end in mind.

  7. socle says:


    I agree that the Dems have done a lousy job communicating here. Even the senator who held the town hall I referred to didn’t seem well prepared.

    But even if he had been, I don’t think he would have gotten five words out of his mouth before people started screaming “socialism!”.

    I found Joe Klein’s description of a town hall in Arkansas eerily familiar:

    Here’s the money quote from Klein:

    “Could I just say that the intensity of this getting pretty scary…and dangerous? We are heading toward a cliff and the usual brakes of civil discourse are not working.”

  8. Ray says:

    I am one of those who does not approve of Obama’s performance.

    I work in healthcare. We KNOW that we need this change. We have a great healthcare system if you are wealthy enough to buy the care you need. I have good coverage but know that I can lose everything I have worked for if I have catastrophic needs. There are just insufficient checks and balances. National policy must set the ground rules for everyone to follow to have reasonable healthcare available to all. That IS the role of federal government. Everyone has to abide by universal traffic regulations (with minor state idiosyncracies). The nationally acceptable minimums must be determined by the democratically elected government.

    I think his approval numbers are dropping because he is not being clear and firm enough. I am an independent and a supporter of his Administration, but I for one, am disappointed he is not being more firm and clear in pursuing his announced agenda. That was his electoral mandate. I think he DOES have the backing of the people for a public option. What do we need to do to convince him and to pursued our senators that they need to get on board?

    I also see the media as giving far too much airtime to the right wing ideological anarchists who want him to fail. I believe there is much more quiet support for getting this done FINALLY.

    Go for it Barack! Don’t settle for a watered down, emasculated health care bill that does not solve the problems. It is time for a paradigm shifting change in healthcare. The vested interests are destroying quality healthcare for everyone.

  9. Rick says:

    1) What’s worse from a messaging perspective, “the public option” or “cap-and-trade”?

    “the public option” is slightly worse. I think most people have some vague concept of what “cap and trade” might mean.

    2) Tell me in one sentence what team Obama says is the benefit of passing a health care reform bill.

    The US will become more like Canada and Canada as everyone knows is a healthcare paradise.

    3) Tell me in one sentence what team Obama says happens if we fail to pass the climate and clean energy bill.

    They haven’t said anything about that as far as I know.


    The messaging is poor because team Obama doesn’t want to communicate as much as they want to do what they want to do. “Just trust us” should be their catch phrase.

  10. lizardo says:

    We are for lower premiums. They are for higher profits.

    We all like Medicare for all, but right now that’s not what Congress is offering, in fact Congress is getting ready to lock people into current employer-provided care even if its rotten.

    Read Matt Taibbi on Rolling Stone, lots of devilry in the details per Congressional aides, 9/5/09


    Also cross-posted on Common Dreams dot org

    Then call the White House and give em heck.

  11. Bill says:

    Obama can win and communicate and get the majority of the people solidly behind him on both issues by forgetting about the complexity and difficulty for the moment and just speaking to truth:

    1) On Health Care he should say very strong and clear: “We cannot reform health care without a public option. Therefore we WILL have a public option. There is no alternative and no point in entertaining compromises that eliminate the public option. Neither I nor the nation will compromise on creating a public option. We must make it happen and we will.”

    2) On the Climate Bill he should say equally strong and clear: “This is simply the right thing to do. It is the thing we must do to protect and preserve our children’s future. We will compromise no further on the provisions of the Climate Bill and we will pass it now.”

    Of course, both of those things would be easier to say and to stick to if there were in fact a “President’s Health Care Bill” and a “President’s Climate Change Bill” before the congress which he could point to and tell the people “This is my legistlation. Call your congress people and tell them to vote for it.”

    So far all the proposals have been a big muddle with no Presidential Seal of Approval on any of them, so the only thing coming through loud and clear has been the consistent, loud, clear cries of denial and obstruction from the opposition. It doesn’t matter if they are wrong, because they are coming through loud and clear and the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress are not.

  12. Tony says:

    My pet peeve: “business as usual”. Environmentalists and scientists who use this seem to think its negative connotations are obvious to all. Well, they’re wrong. To a lot of people, business as usual means the shops stay open; electricity stays on; drinkable water is always available. Business as usual is good. Please, ditch the phrase.

    Also, the “framing” around climate change is all wrong. It’s all about economic pain vs “business as usual”. Well, sorry, but most people will take business as usual in a heartbeat because the phrase doesn’t convey any information about the severe negative consequences of inaction.

    A better story is “rafting a waterfall” or “heading towards a waterfall” or something similar. Nobody in their right minds wants to raft a waterfall. The smart thing to do is to paddle away, but the longer you leave it, the harder the paddling will go. The alternative to paddling away is not the passive “business as usual” but the active “heading straight for the edge.”

    Some people deny the waterfall exists. Others say we don’t need to change course because by the time we reach the edge technology will have advanced to the point where we can build wings for our raft. Governments tend to be of the opinion we only need to change course by a few degrees.

    The best option is to start paddling.