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.
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.