Thursday, November 27, 2014

A Metaphor for Obama

NEW HAVEN – As US President Barack Obama begins his second term, he needs a simple way to express his vision and policies for the economy – a metaphor around which support for his policies might crystallize, thereby boosting his administration’s political effectiveness. So, what makes a successful metaphor work?

The 2008 Obama campaign used the slogan “Change we can believe in.” But “change” is not a metaphor for a new government: it does not stand for any policies. Nor does “Hope” or “Yes we can!”

The 2012 Obama campaign used the one-word slogan “Forward!” Once again, it signifies nothing about policies or their underlying philosophy. Every politician, whether liberal or conservative, wants to move forward, not backward.

Obama’s slogans are examples of “dead metaphors”: they are not part of an overall conceptual scheme.

By contrast, in the 1930’s, President Franklin Roosevelt used a metaphor that remains very much alive today. The idea of a “new deal” was conceived during his first presidential election campaign in 1932, though at the time he was still very vague about what the term stood for.

Apparently, Roosevelt, or his speechwriters, borrowed it from A New Deal, a book by Stuart Chase that was published in 1932 and adapted the same year into a cover story for the magazine The New Republic. Chase described his new deal in general terms as “the drastic and progressive revision of the economic structure, avoiding an utter break with the past.” And, while the book’s specific policy proposals bear little resemblance to Roosevelt’s subsequent actions, the title had an intrinsic appeal that he must have recognized.

The New Deal created an image of a commercial transaction, like the buyout of a company or an incentive package for executives – something that contracting parties bargain over and agree to. It is not imposed. By calling it a “deal,” Roosevelt made clear that the plan was not anti-business: it sounded like an offer to work, to participate, to seize an opportunity. And, because deals can be good or bad, fair or exploitative, the word “new” provided metaphoric depth, suggesting that Roosevelt’s deal was better, fairer, and more attractive.

The metaphor, overwhelmingly endorsed by voters, stood for Roosevelt’s mandate to fix the ailing economy along lines that were innovative but still essentially capitalist. Some of his administration’s initiatives, such as the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission, seemed anti-business to some at the time, but have long since been accepted as a boon to competition and dynamism by hemming in unfair or manipulative behavior.

Metaphors, it turns out, are not just words. Modern neuroscience is revealing that metaphors are intrinsic to creativity, for their use activates diverse regions of the brain associated with their multiple meanings. Good metaphors are those that set off the right intuitive connections in our brains. For example, much progress in understanding sound and light resulted when scientists imagined them in terms of sea waves.

Formulating a good metaphor for Obama’s second term is itself a task for intuitive creative thought that entails rethinking what he will propose in his second term. A good metaphor might embody the idea of an “inclusive economy.” The word “inclusive” resonates strongly: Americans do not want more government per se; rather, they want the government to get more people involved in the market economy. Opinion polls show that, above all, what Americans want are jobs – the beginning of inclusion.

The parallel to Chase’s book today is the 2012 bestseller Why Nations Fail by the economist Daron Acemoglu and the political scientist James Robinson. Acemoglu and Robinson argue that in the broad sweep of history, political orders that include everyone in the economic process are more likely to succeed in the long term.

The time seems ripe for that idea, and it fits with the triumph of inclusiveness symbolized by Obama himself. But another step in metaphor-building is needed to encapsulate the idea of economic inclusion.

The biggest successes of Obama’s first term concerned economic inclusion. The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) is providing more people with access to health care – and bringing more people to privately-issued insurance – than ever before in the United States. The Dodd-Frank financial reforms created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, so that privately issued financial products would serve the public better, and created incentives for derivatives to be traded on public markets. And he signed the JOBS Act, proposed by his Republican opponents, which aims to create crowdfunding Web sites that allow small investors to participate in start-up ventures.

We have not reached the pinnacle of economic inclusion. There are hundreds of other possibilities, including improved investor education and financial advice, more flexible mortgages, better kinds of securitization, more insurance for a broader array of life’s risks, and better management of career risks. Much more progress toward comprehensive public futures and derivatives markets would help, as would policies to encourage the emerging world to participate more in the US economy. (Indeed, the inclusion metaphor is essentially global in spirit; had Obama used it in the past, his economic policies might have been less protectionist.)

The right metaphor would spin some of these ideas, or others like them, into a vision for America’s future that, like the New Deal, would gain coherence as it is transformed into reality. On January 29, Obama will give the first State of the Union address of his new term. He should be thinking about how to express – vividly and compellingly – the principles that have guided his choices so far, and that set a path for America’s future.

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    1. CommentedWaleed Addas

      How about, "Walking The Talk", for domestic affairs...

      Or "My Word is My Bond", for military affairs...

      "Upholding The Truth"--for foreign relations...

      as a metaphor?!

    2. CommentedStefan S

      Having a good metaphor would require having a real vision. Since 9/11, America has been suffering a failure of imagination. Since 2008, capitalism and democracy have been failing because of a lack of accountability. How about "Real Accountability"?

    3. CommentedCarol Maczinsky

      That is the propaganda layer, the US debt development is alarming, that is fundamental and leads to crisis.

    4. CommentedVenu Madhav

      Gosh this is a simple conundrum. I got two to choose from
      i. "Renewed Deal", or ii. " Rise like Phoenix" as the metaphor.

    5. CommentedJesse Durbin

      Forward is a good metaphor. Because "A conservative is a man with two perfectly good legs who, however, has never learned how to walk forward." --Franklin D. Roosevelt
      FDR introduced his new deal metaphor here:
      "I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people. Let us all here assembled constitute ourselves prophets of a new order of competence and of courage. This is more than a political campaign; it is a call to arms. Give me your help, not to win votes alone, but to win in this crusade to restore America to its own people. "

      This is Obama's Forward metaphor ...his kickoff speech...his plan. edited:
      OBAMA: "We have come too far to abandon the change we fought for these past few years. We have to move forward, to the future we imagined in 2008, where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules. That’s the choice in this election, and that’s why I’m running for a second term as President of the United States.

      "Governor Romney is a patriotic American who has raised a wonderful family, and he has much to be proud of. He’s run a large financial firm, and he’s run a state. But I think he has drawn the wrong lessons from those experiences. He sincerely believes that if CEOs and wealthy investors like him make money, the rest of us will automatically prosper as well."

      AUDIENCE: "Booo."

      OBAMA: "When a woman in Iowa shared the story of her financial struggles, he responded with economic theory. He told her, “our productivity equals our income.” Well, let me tell you something. The problem with our economy isn’t that the American people aren’t productive enough -- you’ve been working harder than ever. The challenge we face right now -- the challenge we faced for over a decade is that harder work hasn’t led to higher incomes. It’s that bigger profits haven’t led to better jobs.

      "Governor Romney doesn’t seem to get that. He doesn’t seem to understand that maximizing profits by whatever means necessary -- whether through layoffs or outsourcing or tax avoidance or union-busting -- might not always be good for the average American or for the American economy.

      "Why else would he want to spend trillions more on tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans? Why else would he propose cutting his own taxes while raising them on 18 million working families? Why else would he want to slash the investments that have always helped the economy grow, but at the same time, stop regulating the reckless behavior on Wall Street that helped the economy crash?

      "Somehow, he and his friends in Congress think that the same bad ideas will lead to a different result. Or they’re just hoping you won’t remember what happened the last time we tried it their way.

      "Well, Ohio, I’m here to say that we were there, we remember, and we are not going back. We are moving this country forward.

      "Look, we want businesses to succeed. We want entrepreneurs and investors rewarded when they take risks, when they create jobs and grow our economy. But the true measure of our prosperity is more than just a running tally of every balance sheet and quarterly profit report. I don’t care how many ways you try to explain it: Corporations aren’t people. People are people.

      "We measure prosperity not just by our total GDP; not just by how many billionaires we produce, but how well the typical family is doing -- whether they can go as far as their dreams and hard work will take them.

      "And we understand that in this country, people succeed when they have a chance to get a decent education and learn new skills -- and, by the way, so do the businesses that hire them or the companies that they start.

      "We know that our economy grows when we support research into medical breakthroughs and new technologies that lead to the next Internet app or life-saving drug.

      "We know that our country is stronger when we can count on affordable health insurance and Medicare and Social Security. When we protect our kids from toxic dumping and mercury pollution. When there are rules to make sure we aren’t taken advantage of by credit card companies and mortgage lenders and financial institutions. And we know these rules aren’t just good for seniors, or kids, or consumers -- they're good for business, too. They're part of what makes the market work.

      "Look, we don’t expect government to solve all our problems, and it shouldn’t try. I learned from my mom that no education policy can take the place of a parent’s love and affection. As a young man, I worked with a group of Catholic churches who taught me that no poverty program can make as much of a difference as the kindness and commitment of a caring soul. Not every regulation is smart. Not every tax dollar is spent wisely. Not every person can be helped who refuses to help themselves.

      "But that’s not an excuse to tell the vast majority of responsible, hardworking Americans, 'You’re on your own.' That unless you’re lucky enough to have parents who can lend you money, you may not be able to go to college. That even if you pay your premiums every month, you’re out of luck if an insurance company decides to drop your coverage when you need it most.

      "That’s not how we built America. That’s not who we are. We built this country together. We built this country together.

      "We built railroads and highways; the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge -- together. We sent my grandfather’s generation to college on the GI Bill -- together. We instituted a minimum wage and worker safety laws -- together. Together, we touched the surface of the moon, unlocked the mystery of the atom, connected the world through our own science and imagination. We did these things together -- not because they benefited any particular individual or group, but because they made us all richer. Because they gave us all opportunity. Because they moved us forward together -- as one people, as one nation.

      "That’s the true lesson of our past, Ohio. That’s the right vision for our future. And that’s why I’m running for President.

      "I’m running to make sure that by the end of the decade, more of our citizens hold a college degree than any other nation on Earth. I want to help our schools hire and reward the best teachers, especially in math and science. I want to give two million more Americans the chance to go to community colleges and learn the skills that local businesses are looking for right now. In the 21st century, higher education can’t be a luxury -- it is an economic imperative that every American should be able to afford. That’s the choice in this election. That’s why I’m running for President.

      "I’m running to make sure the next generation of high-tech manufacturing takes root in places like Columbus and Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Richmond. I want to stop rewarding businesses that ship jobs and profits overseas, and start rewarding companies that create jobs right here in the United States of America. That’s the choice in this election.

      "I’m running so that we can keep moving towards a future where we control our own energy. Our dependence on foreign oil is at its lowest point in 16 years. By the middle of the next decade, our cars will average nearly 55 miles per gallon. Thousands of Americans have jobs, right now, because the production of renewal energy in this country has nearly doubled in just three years.

      "So now is not the time to cut these investments to pay for another $4 billion giveaway to the oil companies. Now is the time to end the subsidies for an industry that’s rarely been more profitable. Let’s double down on a clean energy future that’s never been more promising -- for our economy, and for our security, and for the safety of our planet. That’s why I’m running for President. That’s the choice in this election, Ohio."

    6. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

      It is pleasantly surprising to see that the search for metaphors have taken us to India, where"inclusive growth" was made popular by the India Development Policy Review 2006 titled "Inclusive Growth and Service Delivery: Building on India's Success". This report focuses on two major challenges facing India: improving the delivery of core public services, and maintaining rapid growth while spreading the benefits of this growth more widely. Before 2006, 'inclusive growth' as a chosen metaphor never existed.

      If one goes for the success of this metaphor in India, jury is still out.

      Procyon Mukherjee

    7. CommentedAllan Hauer

      True wisdom can be expressed in simple but powerful ways. We’re really talking about the power of the American dream-truly inclusive democracy. Such a picture has to be built on the strong foundation of an educated, healthy society. This is where the spark of free enterprise ignites and blends the individual and community, the singular genius with collective inspiration.

    8. CommentedG. A. Pakela

      The President has no vision other than the reverse of "starving the beast." In the reverse case, the runnup in debt and interest on the debt makes it impossible to finance defense spending.

      Inclusive society will eventually mean more of us will be included in the invevitable tax increases that must take place to fund existing and new entitlements.

        CommentedJohn Brian Shannon

        Hi G.A. Pakela,

        Even at the recently lowered U.S. defense spending levels, the U.S.A. military budget is larger than the next 12 nations combined military spending.

        Not only that, it is the best equipped (already) best trained (already) and most experienced military on the planet, by significant margins.

        And, nobody wants to fight America.

        First, they would lose!
        Second, other nations would prevent it, as they have too much to lose by any harm coming to the U.S. economy.
        Third, any nation daring to attack the U.S. would, by its own actions, incur grievous economic and military harm.

        The idea that any country would attack the U.S. is preposterous, now that the Cold War is over.

        So, why would the U.S. need a $1.5 trillion (or whatever) defense budget?

        Best regards, JBS

    9. CommentedJohn Brian Shannon

      Hi Robert,

      President Obama did bring about change in his first term. The President laid out his positions on energy, energy security and sustainable energy some time ago.

      In fact, he wrote me a letter back in March 2012 outlining these very topics. It is a profound document and it is available to read on my website at:

      At the time, these seemed like grand, but somewhat unreachable goals. But not now, less than a year later. For an overview of this, visit:

      Check out what the IEA is saying about President Obama's startlingly successful energy, energy security and sustainable energy policies here:

      "(Reuters) - The United States will overtake Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world's top oil producer by 2017, the West's energy agency said on Monday, predicting Washington will come very close to achieving a previously unthinkable energy self-sufficiency." (article continues)

      President Obama promised change in America's energy future -- and he delivered unprecedented change!

      Which gives me hope.

      Hope that this President can overcome the economic malaise that has embraced the West and the U.S.A., with a bit of cooperation from U.S. politicians and allies of America.

      Your article Robert, if I may say so, asks the most important question of all, what should that change be and what should it be named?

      Many Americans and America's well-wishers around the globe are unhappy with the inequality in the U.S.

      Initially the U.S. became great on account of the opportunities to citizens (first) and immigrants (second) and its trading partners around the world. This is what built America. The hopes and aspirations of several generations who saw the opportunities America offered to those who worked smart and hard and invested well.

      For those who can be honest about it, those opportunities have dissipated to an alarming degree in the U.S.A. in recent decades.

      Rarely can one finish their education, begin a career at one level and years later, finish their career as a CEO or owner of a large and prosperous business. People have little upward mobility and for those born into poverty situations, the vast majority of them live in poverty until they pass out of this world -- no matter how great their work ethic!

      This has been well-documented elsewhere, so I won't go on about it at length here.

      But if anything is going to help restore citizens faith in the American dream, and restore the faith of America's well-wishers around the world, it is a better-educated society.

      One of the best ways to improve peoples economic standing, (according the the UN and other organizations expert in governance and human development) are by society-wide improvements to health and education.

      It needn't cost a trillion dollars -- but it does need direction.

      The same sort of direction that President Obama used to take America from a nation addicted to foreign oil, and turn it into an energy net exporter, and almost energy self-sufficient nation and a nation on the forefront of sustainable energy worldwide. All accomplished during a time of unprecedented worldwide economic upheaval. Well done, Mr. President!

      So, where are we now?

      An energy-secure America. Done. Check.
      A uniformly healthy America. In progress.
      A uniformly college-educated America? Let's hope.

      If this President's first term accomplishments are remembered as making America energy secure and a well-begun universal health-care plan -- then let us hope that his second term will be remembered by a "Done. Check." on a uniformly healthy American society and a well-begun college education plan for American citizens, so that they too, can become part of America's economic solution and success.

      Best regards, JBS

        CommentedJohn Brian Shannon


        I re-wrote my original comment, added to it, and posted it at my blog.

        You can read it at:

        Cheers, JBS

    10. Commentedjim bridgeman

      This assumes that there has in fact been a driving spirit beyond winning elections. There is no evidence of that. In fact the predominance of dead metaphor (aka sloganeering) is evidence that the entire motivation has been attaining and maintaining power rather than what would be done with the power. Indeed, Affordable Care is best read as the single legislative achievement most likely to cement the left element to the electoral coalition.