Messaging Win: President Obama, Home Economics and the Federal Budget

Having won the battle to establish the validity and necessity of our social safety net already, President Obama has set out to do something extremely important in his rural bus tour for his jobs agenda: reframing the conversation on spending and the budget with a progressive vision. The message is substantially the same wherever he has gone, but let me quote from his stop in Cannon Falls, Minnesota:
Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton -- the last time we had a balanced budget -- all of them understood that you have to take a balanced approach to solving our deficit and debt problems, the same way a family would.  If you knew that you had to cut down on your budget, you wouldn’t stop funding the college fund for your kid. You wouldn’t say, sorry, Johnny, you know, things are tight so we’re going to keep on taking our annual vacation and I’m going to buy a new car next year, but you’re not going to college.  That’s not how you balance your budget.
You get it when you listen to it. It makes sense. I have no doubt that this essential reframing will be missed in the media as well as the "mainstream lefty" blogosphere. But this is the essence of framing the debate if progressives want to sell the country on our vision of America: a nation that invests in our shared future, and that we do not sacrifice that shared future so that the extremely well-to-do can get even more comfortable. In fact, responsible families would do the opposite. They would cut out the lavish vacations so that their children's college funds can be protected. Likewise, a responsible federal budget must protect investments into our future by asking those who have done the best to contribute their fair share.

But President Obama is not trying to pry Americans away from the family-budget and government-budget analogy. Why? Because he knows it won't do anyone any good, and it will not succeed in reframing the debate.

No economic progressive likes the analogy between government budgets and family budgets much. Indeed, economically in the broadest way, it makes little sense: the government is able to borrow money in a much cheaper way that individuals, its spending priorities are different (e.g. individuals can discontinue alarm services in a budget crunch much easier than the government can discontinue paying for national defense; not to mentioin the fact that the need for public services rises at the exact moment the economy contracts, or family incomes fall). Yet, there is a reason the Right has been immensely successful in drawing this analogy.

First, as progressive framing guru Prof. George Lakoff (author of Don't Think of an Elephant) will tell you, everyday Americans look at most things through the prism of households/families - that is the closest unit available to them. The association succeeds because it's something easy to relate to. More precisely, while everyone can understand the differences if explained point by point, the general metaphor still cannot be done away with, because it is a much easier connection to make. No one on the Left is going to ever succeed in doing away with this part of it; it has to be accepted.

The second reason the Right has been successful in drawing this analogy is that they very carefully draw this analogy only in select areas. They do not give you a full accounting of what a family does. They simply tell you, "You cut down on spending when times are tough, so government has to also!" or that "You can't keep putting everything on your credit card!"

So if you have to accept that you cannot possibly wean a majority of Americans away from looking at things, including the government, through the prism of their families and households, how do you convince Americans that the solution to the government's woes is not just cuts, cuts and more cuts? As George Lakoff also taught us, liberals and conservatives use different models of the family in political arguments. So you reframe the analogy - not by dropping it but by refocusing on the liberal model of the family and highlighting things that the Right ignores in personal and family lives. You remind people that families make investments in their children and protect those investments even when times are tough. By extension, the government must protect investments in our future - through education, research and development, and infrastructure.

And this is exactly what the President has been concentrating on. He is not stuck in a futile attempt to decouple the federal budget from the family budget. Rather he recognizes the biggest truth in American political framing for both liberals and conservatives - the family/household as a microcosm. So he is reframing the issues within those confines - taking it from a conservative frame to a progressive one. If we want to win on policy rather than just bathe in the false comfort of "winning an argument", we progressives too need to follow President Obama's example.


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