Winning on framing: How Barack Obama is shoving "class warfare" back down the GOP's throat

The Republican debates have become zoo dungeons, but no more so than the Republican Congressional caucuses. An important Pew poll came out on Monday that showed something we have felt for a while now: Congress is dysfunctional and the President, while bruised by the dysfunctional Congress, is now seen clearly as the only adult in the room. The poll shows that the American people's confidence in the President in handling the federal deficit has essentially flatlined at a solid majority before, during and after the debt limit fight, while that of the Congressional leadership - both Democratic and Republican, but more Republican - have plummeted.

Have a look at the graph on the left. Only President Obama's confidence level has remained flat, while that of Congress has taken a nose dive. This aligns perfectly with the paid-staff-and-family-members-only approval rating of Congress. In the last nine months, the people's confidence in the president on the deficit has remained the same, and Republican Congressional leaders are now nearly 20 points behind the President. Interestingly, even Democratic leaders of Congress have lost 8 points since the May peak. Maybe this should tell the Democratic Congresscritters that the President is your best asset, get off our butts and get on board with him.

But this might also be an indication that the American people are finally paying attention, and they know where the blame for the dysfunction of the government lies: Congress, and specifically, the Republicans in Congress.
Just 35% say they have a great deal or fair amount of confidence in Republican leaders in Congress to do the right thing when it comes to dealing with the federal budget deficit, down from 47% in May. Fully 62% say they have little or no confidence in the Republican leaders on this issue.
But that's not all. Americans don't simply have confidence in the president on the issue of the federal budget far exceeding anyone in Congress, his specific proposals to create jobs and and close the deficit are supported by large margins, while Republican proposals are rejected by equally large margins.


Fully two-thirds of Americans support raising the income tax on the top 2% of Americans, and winding down wars. Nearly 6 in 10 support limiting tax deductions for large corporations - a concept that has thus far been difficult to explain to the American people and thus gotten mixed up into the Republicans' "they're going to raise your taxes" scare tactic. Not anymore. On the flipside, GOP proposals to screw with the poor face a solid majority opposition, and their "cut spending" mantra - which is largely accomplished by cutting spending for states and for education face the opposition of two in three Americans. A matter of electoral importance, independents are aligned with Democrats on every one of these questions.

Note, though, changes to Social Security and Medicare has the country evenly divided, largely the result of the fact that poll did not specify actual possible changes. But what does the success of this messaging and its connection to the confidence in the president show?

A paradigm shift: If you connect the voters' answers to the specific proposals to reduce the deficit with the fact that the president enjoys a wide advantage in confidence among the American people, logically there is but one conclusion to make: President Obama is the first Democratic politician in a long, long time to get people to start thinking about specifics rather than being trapped into the "cut spending/raise taxes" duopoly that the media and the political Right has pushed on us for too long.

This is a major framing victory for the president and for liberals. The conservative frame is dependent on ignorance and the idea that an overarching, simple idea - such as tax cuts = good - would rule the day. Since Barack Obama's ascension to the presidency, some progressives - let's call them the Professional Left - have assumed that a counter-narrative must also be just as simple to persuade people. Thus, they came up with the equally bad equations of all spending = good and all tax cuts = bad. So much so that the claimed the mantle of liberalism and opposed the first tax cut for the working poor in decades (in the form of the payroll tax cut) without any hint of irony.

Winning on values: But deep inside, the conservative right wing frame is not based on an equation but a set of values. On the economic side, those values are, quite clearly: the rich are rich because they deserve it, and the poor are poor because they deserve it. The rich are the "successful" and the government's role is to assist them in building their wealth, because their wealth is proof that they are worthy of it. Once you figure it out, what are our countering liberal values? Our values say that everyone deserves equal opportunity to succeed, that we have a social responsibility to help those who cannot help themselves, and that those who have benefited the most from the system also must contribute the most to ensure that as a society, we can continue to make investments in the future.

When the right wing charges the President with "class warfare," this liberal value system is exactly what they are attacking. The Tea Party opposition to investments in our social responsibilities stem from their opposition to that liberal value system.

Now, that the American people line up economically with the progressive viewpoint is nothing new. Yet for decades, Democratic leaders (and presidents) have spent all their effort running away from the 'class warfare' demagoguery of the Right. Heck, the other day, President Clinton's former adviser Mark Penn chided President Obama not to "bring back class warfare." Some of it is because lots of Democratic politicians are deathly afraid of being termed 'tax raisers' and 'class warriors.'

Welcoming their hatred (or at least wearing it as a badge of honor): Not Barack Obama. He took that "class warfare" rhetoric and made it a boomerang for the Republicans. First, he taunted the Republicans for being numerically challenged: "it's not class warfare, it's math," said the President when he released his plan to pay for his jobs package as well as to reduce the deficit. Since then, he has taken the message to numerous audiences, always to thunderous applause: if you want to term him a class warrior for being a warrior for the middle class and for saying that millionaires should pay at least the same tax rate as plumbers, he will wear that as a badge of honor (by the way, this should also satisfy the Lefty whiners' orgasmic affair with FDR's "I welcome their hatred" line, no?)

Making it a choice: But why is it working? And how did Obama suddenly get people to start paying attention to the specifics? He presented a choice. He presented a choice between the conservative value system (the one that says the rich are the 'chosen' people and everyone else is simply not good enough) and the liberal value system (the one that says there exists social responsibility for our common good and our common future). At his jobs speech to Congress and since then, the president has again and again presented these choices to the American people:
  • Would you rather pay for millionaires' tax breaks or fix crumbling schools?
  • Would you rather protect corporate tax cheats or build roads and bridges and airports in America?
  • Would you rather protect tax breaks for corporate jet owners or use the money to cut 50% off the payroll tax, which most affect the working poor and the middle class?
  • Would you rather subsidize the incomes of hedge fund managers in our tax code or would you rather put teachers in the classroom, cops on the street and firefighters on duty?
When you talk about just one thing - like raising taxes on the rich - no matter its merits, it's easy to get it caught into an ideological maze. But if you present an issue as a choice - as all things are - the frame of thinking is completely different. It forces people to think not just in terms of one frame of mind depending on their experiences and what they hear in the media, but to choose between the two value systems. Inevitably, most people in that situation will pick the liberal frame over the conservative one.

Role of government: On top of the individual policy choices, these choices combined repudiate a big Republican argument that we see playing out on their primary debate stages as well as from Republican Congressional leaders: that government cannot/does not/should not help create jobs and should stay out of everything. People are essentially faced with a larger question: should government play an active role in reviving the economy and strengthening our future, or should it go the laissez faire route, cut out assistance, services and investments, and leave it all up to the mercy of the rich? In other words, the quintessential question that has been at the heart of the political debate for centuries: what is the role of government?

If the survey above is to be believed, when faced with a choice, the American people side with the president that the role of government may be limited, but it should side with the poor and the middle class over the rich, and protect investments in our future. Barack Obama just nullified the Republican potent weapon of 'class warfare,' and all they can do is sit and watch, probably stunned.

And this is Barack Obama's success. He has not only gotten the American people to think about those choices and make the correct ones, but he has methodically exposed the Republican party as the enemy of the middle class and working people. He has exposed the Republicans for their real agenda: dismantling social responsibility, strengthening corporate welfare, and let the rest of us go to hell. If progressives want to learn how to win long term battles rather than short term bitching contests, look at Barack Obama.