Lakoff Slams Obama’s Dreadful Messaging

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"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 [we tried during the last decade -- 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.

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41 Responses to Lakoff Slams Obama’s Dreadful Messaging

  1. fj says:

    It’s difficult to comment on this except that a Romney administration would be a frightening setback which would incur more horrors than bad messaging, considering what happened during the prior Republican reign and continues to this day relentlessly obstructing responsible emergency action.

    • Joe Romm says:

      Team Romney is also dreadful at messaging!

      • squidboy6 says:

        yeah, the only silver lining is that Romney has more trouble than Obama in messaging, probably because he can’t lie the way Bush did, reflexively.

        Obama doesn’t get it that Fox News and many others lie so well and so often since he knows that these lies don’t persuade him so they shouldn’t persuade the rest but half of the country prefers lies.

  2. Doug Bostrom says:

    After venting please do remember to vote.

    If you think the problem with Obama is mostly how he tells his story as opposed to fundamental agreement with Romney, you need to vote consistently with your thinking.

  3. Joan Savage says:

    Accentuating the positive..

    Smile on, Bill McKibben!!
    (where-ever you are this fine day)

  4. Dano says:

    Republicans crazy, Democrats incompetent.

    Best,

    D

  5. catman306 says:

    “But here we have Obama just repeating Obama’s main point/narrative/frame, particularly on regulations.”

    Could you have meant the second occurrence of ‘Obama’s’ to be ‘Romney’s’

    Obama repeating Romney’s

  6. Jeff Huggins says:

    Actions and Words

    Joe, I look forward to the book, but I do hope that it gives due attention to the most important lesson of communication, often put like this: actions speak louder than words.

    Alas, many writers and thinkers overlook the point — perhaps they think it’s so “obvious” that it must not actually be important (a deep confusion), or that nothing new can be said about it (also incorrect). Indeed, although I agree with you and Lakoff that Obama’s framing and messaging are often not effective, and frequently terrible, his even larger problem (and ours!) is that his biggest decisions and actions are often inconsistent with his words, and undermine them. Thus, you could turn Obama into a fantastic “messager” in terms of framing and words — better than Lincoln and (Shakespeare’s) Brutus and etc. — but still not get very far at all, in terms of his ultimate credibility and communicative effectiveness, if his decisions and actions don’t match. Relatively speaking, I think that mismatch (between actions and words) is the far larger problem, in the case of the current situation. Alas, we need dramatic improvement on both fronts.

    In any case, I look forward to the book.

    Cheers,

    Jeff

    • Spike says:

      That’s true. In the UK Prime Ministers are remembered as great not because of their messaging, but because of their achievements. So we remember Churchill and Attlee – but someone like Blair who was great at messaging (we called it spin)will live only in infamy. A bit like leaders who are currently ignoring climate will be remembered as abject moral failures.

  7. Dave says:

    I wish messaging was his only limitation. I cannot what tell what he actually believes in and thinks worth fighting for. Given the truly awful policies Romney is championing, this election should not be close. It will be close because Obama has shown too little courage in pushing for real change in energy, health care, economic, and foreign policy. If Romney wins, it is game over for everything I care about.

    I think we have the wrong Obama on the ticket. It is Michele that should be president and running for re-election.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      At root, Obama only believes in Obama, and to further his progress he must serve those who have controlled him since college, the rich. His character is, surely, by now, an open book. He is, in my opinion, an inveterate dissembler.

  8. Jeff Poole says:

    Looking forward to the book!

    Here in Australia we have a strangely warped version of what you’re experiencing.

    We have an unpopular PM who is presiding over a very successful parliament that has been able to pass more legislation than almost any other by dint of argument and compromise with independents . But she’s under the thumb of ‘communications specialists’ who can’t string three words together and who run – VERY FAST – from any admission that the government is taking into account the viewpoints of others…

    We have an Opposition that nobody likes with a leader who is loathed as much, or more than the PM and – being a fundamentalist catholic – he has no connection with reality whatsoever.

    But as a Jesuit, boy he knows how to do rhetoric!

    He contradicts himself all the time, he’s even said on national television that no-one should take what he says ‘off the cuff’ as being truthful! Yet, if the last two years are any indication, he’s likely to be elected in a landslide sometime late next year by a nation that thoroughly dislikes him.

    And his party has been employing Republican PR advisors…

    Joe, if the Anglophone world (outside of the UK and New Zealand, where they have a bit more sense and less polarised politics) is to avoid a theocratic takeover and a return to barbarism we need to learn how to talk back to these people and neutralise their bare-arsed lies!.

    And right now there’s no-one capable of doing it.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Jeff, you haven’t been following politics in the UK closely enough. The rabid Right is waging a war of social cleansing and class vengeance there that makes Thatcher look like St Francis. And not a few of the most joyful head-kickers assailing the poor, the weak, the disabled, poor children and the environment are convinced God-botherers.

      • Jeff Poole says:

        Not dissimilar to Queensland then!

        We now have a bunch that will take the bread from children’s mouths, cut funding to schools and health programs while GIVING AUS$1.4billion to rich mining conglomerates.

        As to Maggie T, probably not too many people on here remember that she was the first world leader to take climate change seriously.

        Unlike the current bunch of know-nothing fundamentalist drones that have swamped Anglophone conservative parties the world over, Thatcher was a scientist and accepted basic physics – that was why she set up the Hadley Centre and funded it while she was slashing and burning everything else…

  9. EDpeak says:

    We progressivse seem forever able to convince ourselves that it’s largely or mostly about the Democrats “shooting themselves in the foot” or “bad messaging”…

    Somehow the Democtrats must be stupid, or want to fail or are incompetent strategically..and are “infinitely” worse in their skills (or just don’t want to win, or, or, or some other excuse we use to convince ourselvse of this)

    It can’t *possibly* be the case that under the current cost/benefit analysis and the environment they (Democrats in Congress or Obama) find themselves in, that they are no less smart, and no less wanting to win, than before?**

    Because that would put the onus on us to change that environment…We do good work on that front, including CP, doing excellent work shedding light on Koch brothers, etc…but while general framing advice is a good thing to do (and JR has written very good pieces on it) we then convince ourselves it’s the main issue, or at least the main problem…if *only* Obama took this magic pill that Lakoff has, he’s win! As if Obama just isn’t smart anymore or doesn’t want to win anymore…If only it was that simple…

    Again I don’t want to overly criticize CP or JR who has done excellent work..but we fool ourselves thinking it’s this simple and it’s too convenient to just focus our disgust as ‘bad messaging’.(and ‘infinitely worse’ speeches)

    Let me make a constructive suggestion: how about a series of pieces on how to talk to our neighbors, family, co-workers, friends, etc, to help them re-frame pieces even when the speaker (Obama or Democrats in general) haven’t done a great job?

    The exponential power of viral spread could do as much or more good than increasing our blood pressure (hey, it’s important to keep progressives healthy and not dying prematurely! ;-) and could spread…it’s our neighbors and co-workers and friends who fall for the Romney/Koch/Heatland B.S….why not spread articles on how to talk to them? That’s more likely to be something we can do something about..we’re not exactly likely to get Obama on the phone to say, “Gee, thanks CP readers, for contacting me with these suggestions on how to change my next speech” (though I’ll EVEN sign a petition to do that..to ask Obama to change rhetoritc for the better..)

    I just hope CP is as open to supportive, well meaneaing constructive criticism as they want Obama to be to theirs :-) Peace,

    E.D.

    **(this is not to defend their positions; progressives have *plenty* to rightly criticize positions in domestic and foreign policy of all Democrats..wish TP was not so fawning about the extra-judicial assassination of an elderly psychopath rather than charging him and taking him to court, for exmaple..

    • Joe Romm says:

      Never said it was just bad messaging, only that with messaging this bad, nothing else one does can fix things.

    • Jeff Poole says:

      I’m afraid you’ve drunk the Kool-Aid.

      Let’s be plain. ALL US political parties are extreme right wing when compared with other democracies.

      Obama, not some fundamentalist GOP drone, is the President who has just strangled the UN process at Rio.

      It’s not messaging that Obama needs its a stick of gelignite where the sun don’t shine.

      And it’s past time alleged ‘progressives’ in the US stopped trying to put lipstick on this pig.

      When you choose the lesser of two evils you know what you get? Evil!

      • Mark E says:

        DELETION REQUEST

        Jeff’s flippant remark about shoving explosive material up the President’s arse ought to be expunged.

        Jeff, I have voted Green Party many times. Such remarks are neither helpful, ethical, or patriotic. We can’t remake a violent power hungry society by adopting its methods.

  10. EDpeak says:

    “Obama doesn’t get it that Fox News and many others lie so well and so often since he knows that these lies don’t persuade him so they shouldn’t persuade the rest but half of the country prefers lies.”

    I think it’s extremely unlikely that Obama doesn’t get the fact that the lies persuade half the country. Again, I think we progressivse have to be careful not to fall too strongly into the “Democrats just dumb/shoot self in foot” narrative. So I sympathize with the feeling but caution against the message of one of the other commenters that “Republicans crazy, Democrats incompetent.”

    (oh oh, I just repeated another person’s framing with a negation…big trouble! Ok, news flash: Democrats, most of the, have terrible “bad-but-usually-not-quite-as-bad-as-Republicans” politics..but they are not incompetent..that’s not the problem”

    “I think we have the wrong Obama on the ticket. It is Michele that should be president and running for re-election.”

    If she won, in a few years we’d be all commenting on how bad her speeches and rhetoric and framing is post-election, compared to Michele the candidate.

    Time to wake ourselves up and smell the coffee: we need to change the horrible cost-benefit analysis that ANY president faces (yes, there’s also the ‘isolated bubble’ aspect, but it’s far from the only problem) we need to change that monstrosity of a (largely) rigged game… if we keep the game rigged, then even a rhetorical genius with the politics of (name your favorite progressive leader, Nader, whoever it may be) would still have us granshing teeth about how they are losing the rhetoric battle, not long after they win election! We need to change the psychotic culture that causes half+ of Americans (who vote) to vote for Koch/Heartland/Romney propaganda..that’s the bigger nut to crack open

    (Note: I accidentally typed H-e-a-t-l-a-n-d the first time, skipping the “r”…ironic, ain’t it folks! If Heartland wins, Earth is gonna be “Heat-Land” for sure! ;-)

  11. I assume that the book that is discussed is the one in Amazon that is schedule for Any Day Now:

    “The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic [Paperback]
    George Lakoff (Author), Elisabeth Wehling
    This title will be released on June 26, 2012.”

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Little-Blue-Book-Democratic/dp/147670001X/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1340597140&sr=8-4&keywords=george+lakoff

  12. Syd Baumel says:

    Lakoff’s critique is dreadful. He misquotes Obama and misrepresents the rhetorical skill of his speech, creating a straw man. For example:

    Lakoff misquoting Obama:

    “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.”

    What Obama actually said (from the transcript: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/06/14/remarks-president-economy-cleveland-oh):

    “Governor Romney and his allies in Congress believe deeply in the theory that we tried during the last decade — the theory that the best way to grow the economy is from the top down.”

    Cheap shot to leave out the bit where Obama ties the albatross of George W. Bush around Romney’s neck. Also bad form to imply that Obama just keeps nattering on, spelling out Romney’s arguments without challenging them until his listeners have all nodded off. The transcript shows that Obama continues to light into Romney in the next few paragraphs:

    “So if they win the election, their agenda will be simple and straightforward. They have spelled it out: They promise to roll back regulations on banks and polluters, on insurance companies and oil companies. They’ll roll back regulations designed to protect consumers and workers. They promise to not only keep all of the Bush tax cuts in place, but add another $5 trillion in tax cuts on top of that….” (more here: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/06/14/remarks-president-economy-cleveland-oh).

    • Joe Romm says:

      Lakoff did get the quote wrong, but the analysis stands. You don’t repeat the other side’s frame, even if you later diss it. Read the links.

  13. cm1165 says:

    I think that this is a great example of how reframing the conversation works. Instead of letting the conversation be about “taxes, taxes, taxes” they forced the conversation to be about “libraries, libraries, libraries” and it worked.

    There is a lesson to be learned here.

  14. cm1165 says:

    oops, the link didn’t post through. Maybe this time?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nw3zNNO5gX0&feature=player_embedded

  15. Ray Duray says:

    @Jeff Poole,

    Thanks so much for your perspective. I get my Aussie news from Clarke & Dawe so I have a vague sense of what you’re going through.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylaz3pVZ2V8

    As John Clarke, political scientist, says, “it’s a bit of a circus…”

    ***
    More seriously, I appreciate your analysis of the Canberra Circus.

    ***
    For those interested in how the art of persuasion has changed over the decades, there’s nothing better to get started on than the 1928 classic, “Propaganda” by PR pitch man Edward Bernays:

    http://tinyurl.com/8ymto64

  16. Mark E says:

    Compromising one’s own values too often and too far will – inevitably – result in lousy messaging.

    It is the inevitable result when a dishonest power block intentionally fronts extremist groups to yank the center in one direction or the other. It’s an old strategy to try to re-define “the middle”. By playing to that audience, Team Obama create that reality. It’s not the GOP’s extremism that pulls the center to the right. It’s Team Obama playing to that audience that really cements it.

    But the result is so divorced from the progressive core values it is no wonder they can’t put a cohesive compelling message together.

    The only solution is to re-discover the central progressive themes and to turn those back into the moral and patriotic imperatives they used to be. Innocent compelling honesty is all that’s needed.

    • David Goldstein says:

      excellent comment!…it baffles me that Obama and other (relatively) liberal/progressive pols are not ‘yanking’ the dialogue back, e.g. “Patriotic? You call ignoring scientists and, in so doing, accruing incalculable costs and suffering for your fellow Americans, your children and your grandchildren…PATRIOTIC??? I call it ignorance, at best and cowardice at worst!” Somebody say it…for goodness sake, where is the backbone?! There is a clear division in our country these days, just call it out for what it is.

  17. NJP1 says:

    maybe Obama isn’t interested in just delivering empty words.
    The USA and the rest of the world face problems to which there are no effective answers. Obama knows it, but he’s not the kind of guy who stands up and offers pointless rhetoric, expecting voters to believe the nonsense of his critics and political opponents

  18. SecularAnimist says:

    Doug Bostrom wrote: “If you think the problem with Obama is mostly how he tells his story as opposed to fundamental agreement with Romney …”

    Well, one area in which Obama’s “messaging” has been compelling and clear is his support for massively expanding fossil fuel extraction, whether it’s offshore oil drilling, or mining coal on public lands, or piping tar from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico — an area in which he clearly is in “fundamental agreement” with Romney, and indeed with the McCain/Palin “Drill Baby Drill” energy plan that I thought he was running against in 2008.

    And I don’t think Obama’s refusal to seriously address global warming (beyond a few words in a Rolling Stone interview) is the result of “poor messaging”. I think it is the result of a very deliberate, calculated decision that he does not want to address the issue, because there is simply no way of doing so that’s consistent with his actual pro-fossil fuel policies.

    • Doug Bostrom says:

      My advice still stands: decide who is better aligned with your beliefs and then vote.

      • Dan the Heretic says:

        Except you don’t seem willing to heed your own advice. Assuming you do care about stopping climate change, I have little doubt that Green Party candidate Jill Stein or Justice Party candidate Rocky Anderson are “better aligned with your beliefs.”

        Yet you repeatedly make clear in your comments on this blog that you support President Obama.

    • AlC says:

      Given the present composition of Congress, especially the House, there is no way to directly address the issue of global warming, so why spend political capital on it. When the public demands change, the leaders follow. It is up to us to create the public demand for change.

      However, by implementing energy conservation measures such as vehicle MPG limits, and pushing for renewable energy, the Obama administration is indirectly dealing with the issue, as well as increasing energy independence.

  19. AlC says:

    Voting for the candidate you agree with is hopefully just the start. Get out there and actively campaign for them.

  20. SecularAnimist says:

    Here’s what Obama said in March, as quoted on this website:

    “Now, under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years. That’s important to know. Over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some. So we are drilling all over the place right now … my administration has approved dozens of new oil and gas pipelines over the last three years -– including one from Canada. And as long as I’m President, we’re going to keep on encouraging oil development and infrastructure …”

    I don’t see any problem with the “messaging” there — except perhaps that Obama didn’t mention his administration’s equally strong support for massively expanding coal mining on public lands, but then this particular speech was specifically about oil. It’s very clear, strong messaging, in fact.

    No, there’s nothing wrong with the “messaging”. What’s wrong is the actual policies.

  21. Mark E says:

    Joe, would you be interested in hosting a “Dream A Speech” contest? Invite CP readers to draft a speech for Obama. T shirts for the winning entries!

  22. This whole discussion exposes another fundamental problem with our political process in the USA. While on the one hand, you have those who advise us to “decide who is better aligned with your beliefs and then vote”, there are those who point to the Romney bogeyman and warn us that not voting for Obama will bring disaster.

    It is clear that the Green Party’s Dr. Jill Stein meets the first criteria, especially with regard to energy policyt and climate change. She even has the record of having out debated Romney in the MA gubernatorial race. That surely deserves my vote and yet we are reminded that “a Romney administration would be a frightening setback which would incur more horrors than bad messaging…”.

    It seems clear to me that Romney will deliver on his promises to drill everywhere and to approve the Keystons XL Pipeline. It seems clear to me that Obama is going to do the same. It is only if you are willing to chose and alternative that you can have a different outcome.

    • Mark E says:

      As a proud and unrepentant 4-time Green party presidential voter, I’m going with Obama….. and 100% of that decision is to support the IPCC in prepping the next major assessment report, due out in 2014.

      PS About third party voting… Decisions like Citizens United does give me a brief moment of pause, but IMO that argument amounts to whether us lemmings should run or walk as we head to the cliff. If we are not facing capitalism’s fatal unavoidable defect (we can not grow the economy forever) then the rest is noise. Go Greens!

      • Dan the Heretic says:

        “and 100% of that decision is to support the IPCC in prepping the next major assessment report, due out in 2014. ”

        Why? The previous IPCC assessment report was pretty much useless. No major policy makers paid attention to it and it’s science was demonstrably too conservative and/or out of date. Why should we expect a different outcome with the next report?

    • Dan the Heretic says:

      Excellent comment.