Joe Biden and Kamala Harris walking
President Joe Biden walks with Vice President Kamala Harris across the West Executive Avenue at the White House Monday, March 29, 2021, following the President’s remarks in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Last night, Pres­i­dent Joe Biden deliv­ered his first joint address to the Unit­ed States Con­gress. Speak­ing to a much spars­er than usu­al crowd in the House cham­ber due to the pan­dem­ic, Biden impres­sive­ly took advan­tage of almost every oppor­tu­ni­ty that he had to use the log­ic of pro­gres­sive val­ues to make the case for wor­thy, long over­due ideas that would raise Amer­i­cans’ qual­i­ty of life.

In so many ways, Biden’s speech — deliv­ered from a podi­um sit­u­at­ed in front of the first female vice pres­i­dent and Speak­er of the House in U.S. his­to­ry — was a tri­umph. But the fram­ing in par­tic­u­lar deserves recog­ni­tion. Nev­er before has our team heard a Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States so effec­tive­ly make the case for so many dif­fer­ent pro­gres­sive ideas with­in the con­fines of a sin­gle speech.

As Joel not­ed last night, this address may not have had Oba­ma’s soar­ing ora­to­ry, but it more than made up for that. It was what Amer­i­cans need­ed to hear from their Com­man­der in Chief. And it was earnest­ly, kind­ly, and sin­cere­ly delivered.

Fram­ing is cru­cial in pol­i­tics because peo­ple think in terms of frames as opposed to mere facts. If the facts don’t fit the frame a per­son is using, they will sim­ply bounce off. That is why refram­ing is so impor­tant. Democ­rats and pro­gres­sives have his­tor­i­cal­ly not been very good at refram­ing, despite the noble efforts of lin­guists like George Lakoff, who wrote a series of excel­lent books on the topic.

Last night, Biden reframed. He did­n’t sim­ply throw out num­bers in an effort to prove his point. He reset the frame, over and over, issue by issue.

Fram­ing and refram­ing real­ly mat­ters to this administration.

Con­sid­er the nam­ing of Biden’s three key proposals.

The Amer­i­can Res­cue Plan, the Amer­i­can Jobs Plan, and the Amer­i­can Fam­i­lies Plan are all sim­ply and beau­ti­ful­ly named. Accu­rate, mem­o­rable, and punchy.

They begin with the word “Amer­i­can”, refer­ring to the coun­try as a whole. They then each con­tain a key word (res­cue, jobs, and fam­i­lies) fol­lowed by the word plan. All of those words are excel­lent flags for pro­gres­sive concepts.

Years ago, in one of his books, Lakoff plead­ed with Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­ers to give their leg­isla­tive pro­pos­als sim­ple names exact­ly like these.

In The Lit­tle Blue Book, Lakoff and his coau­thor Eliz­a­beth Wehling wrote of the land­mark Patient Pro­tec­tion and Afford­able Care Act:

Some­thing sim­i­lar occurs with the con­ser­v­a­tive epi­thet Oba­macare. The term focus­es on the pro­pos­er of the leg­is­la­tion rather than the peo­ple it helps or its moral val­ue or its impor­tance in both the life of indi­vid­u­als and the life of the nation. In recent months, Democ­rats, includ­ing mem­bers of the admin­is­tra­tion, have adopt­ed the word, thus help­ing the con­ser­v­a­tive cause.

The Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion fur­ther oblig­ed by giv­ing the leg­is­la­tion a ter­ri­ble [offi­cial] name, the Afford­able Care Act.

Afford­able is dis­as­trous in three ways. First, it places health and life in the com­merce frame, using the “health care as prod­uct” metaphor. Sec­ond, it does­n’t place health care in a moral frame, ignor­ing the moral dimen­sions of care. This opened the door for con­ser­v­a­tives to frame it from their moral per­spec­tive as a gov­ern­ment takeover and to focus on the use of cost-ben­e­fit analy­sis to con­strain elder care as death pan­els. Third, the word sug­gests low qual­i­ty; what is afford­able is not nec­es­sar­i­ly valuable.

Imag­ine if it had been called the Amer­i­can Plan. It would be a lot hard­er to attack and a plea­sure to men­tion at every oppor­tu­ni­ty. The Amer­i­can Plan is patri­ot­ic; it sug­gests we’re all in this togeth­er, and it sug­gests excellence.

Empha­sis is mine.

Lakoff and Eliz­a­beth Wehling wrote those words almost ten years ago.

I imag­ine they’re over the moon to see their most excel­lent advice final­ly tak­en to heart and put to actu­al prac­ti­cal use by a Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial admin­is­tra­tion. Rec­og­niz­ing that “the Amer­i­can Plan” can’t be beat, Biden’s team decid­ed to use it to describe all of their major leg­isla­tive pro­pos­als. And so, again, we have the Amer­i­can Res­cue Plan, the Amer­i­can Jobs Plan, and the Amer­i­can Fam­i­lies Plan.

Just as Lakoff and Wehling argued in 2012, those names are a plea­sure to say. They are patri­ot­ic, sug­gest we’re all in this togeth­er, and they sug­gest excellence.

Is it any won­der that Amer­i­cans are respond­ing favor­ably to Biden’s pro­pos­als? Biden isn’t just propos­ing good ideas. He is refram­ing as he goes. That’s key.

When a pro­gres­sive idea is pre­sent­ed with­in a pro­gres­sive frame, it has a high like­li­hood of just mak­ing sense to peo­ple, even if they may not use the pro­gres­sive val­ues sys­tem in all or many areas of their polit­i­cal thinking.

In choos­ing words and frames that evoke pro­gres­sive ideas, Biden is defy­ing the assump­tions of many pun­dits and activists who were expect­ing him to gov­ern like Barack Oba­ma or Bill Clin­ton did. Clin­ton, in par­tic­u­lar, was famous for employ­ing tri­an­gu­la­tion to build sup­port for his pres­i­den­cy dur­ing the 1990s.

While Clin­ton ben­e­fit­ed in the short term from adopt­ing a neolib­er­al approach to gov­ern­ing that has been called “the third way”, the long term con­se­quences for the coun­try were absolute­ly dis­as­trous. Clin­ton embraced poor­ly nego­ti­at­ed, unfair trade agree­ments, repeal of New Deal era bank­ing restric­tions like Glass-Stea­gall that had served the coun­try well for decades, and the adop­tion of an extreme­ly puni­tive crime bill, not to men­tion leg­is­la­tion that wrong­ly held that het­ero­sex­u­al mar­riage was the only kind of legit­i­mate marriage.

When Barack Oba­ma won the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­na­tion in 2008, he prompt­ly began sur­round­ing him­self with Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion alum­ni, and pro­ceed­ed to start mak­ing a num­ber of unwise deci­sions of his own, from endors­ing immu­ni­ty for tele­com com­pa­nies that were help­ing the fed­er­al spy agen­cies run mass sur­veil­lance pro­grams to approv­ing a bank bailout that gave Wall Street firms a blank check to bring­ing in zeal­ous neolib­er­al Rahm Emanuel to serve as his Chief of Staff. Then, after win­ning elec­tion, Oba­ma wast­ed pre­cious time and ener­gy try­ing to court sup­port from Repub­li­cans bent on his polit­i­cal destruction.

Thank­ful­ly, Biden has so far cho­sen a dif­fer­ent path. This is not to say that Biden’s agen­da is as pro­gres­sive as it should be: it is still regret­tably defi­cient in a num­ber of areas, as Yvette Simp­son of Democ­ra­cy For Amer­i­ca said last night.

That said, there is no ques­tion that the three Amer­i­can Plans are a gen­uine attempt to meet the moment with pro­gres­sive ideas and not waste this crisis.

If we had more pro­gres­sive rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Con­gress, it would be eas­i­er to address some of the defi­cien­cies in Biden’s pro­pos­als, but Nan­cy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are oper­at­ing with razor thin majori­ties which Repub­li­cans are anx­ious to take away. That is a prob­lem that could be rec­ti­fied in the 2022 midterms.

The con­ven­tion­al wis­dom is that Repub­li­cans are posi­tioned to recap­ture at least the House and per­haps the Sen­ate. But the con­ven­tion­al wis­dom of pun­dits is often wrong. If Democ­rats gov­ern well and wise­ly, if they turn out their vot­ers next year, if they do well in their can­di­date recruit­ment efforts and their ger­ry­man­der­ing account­abil­i­ty cam­paigns, they will have max­i­mized their chances of stun­ning the pun­dits and grow­ing their majori­ties instead of los­ing them.

That, in turn, could pro­duce a 118th Con­gress bet­ter posi­tioned to address the grave prob­lems that are threat­en­ing this coun­try’s future.

Based on what our team has seen so far from the admin­is­tra­tion and Democ­rats in Con­gress, there is every rea­son to believe 2022 will be a very dif­fer­ent midterm cycle than 2010 or 2014 was. The most impor­tant thing Biden must do is to con­tin­ue to reframe at every junc­ture. This is of vital impor­tance: Pro­gres­sive ideas nat­u­ral­ly res­onate when they are pre­sent­ed using frames that cor­rect­ly acti­vate the log­ic of pro­gres­sive val­ues in the minds of those listening.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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