Political journalists have a job to do -- to examine the SOTU's long list of proposals. They are doing that job, many are doing it well, and I'll leave it to them. Instead, I want to discuss what in the long run is a deeper question: How did the SOTU help to change public discourse? What is the change? And technically, how did it work?
The address was coherent. There was a single frame that fit together all the different ideas, from economics to the environment to education to gun safety to voting rights. The big change in public discourse was the establishment of that underlying frame, a frame that will, over the long haul, accommodate many more specific proposals.
Briefly, the speech worked via frame evocation. Not statement, evocation -- the unconscious and automatic activation in the brains of listeners of a morally-based progressive frame that made sense of what the president said.
When a frame is repeatedly activated, it is strengthened. Obama's progressive frame was strengthened not only in die-hard progressives, but also in partial progressives, those who are progressive on some issues and conservative on others -- the so-called moderates, swing voters, independents, and centrists. As a result, 77 percent of listeners approved of the speech, 53 percent strongly positive and 24 percent somewhat positive, with only 22 percent negative. When that deep progressive frame is understood and accepted by a 77 percent margin, the president has begun to move America toward a progressive moral vision.
If progressives are going to maintain and build on the president's change in public discourse so far, we need to understand just what that change has been and how he accomplished it.
It hasn't happened all at once.
In 2008, candidate Obama made overt statements. He spoke overtly about empathy and the responsibility to act on it as the basis of democracy. He spoke about the need for an "ethic of excellence." He spoke about the role of government to protect and empower everyone equally.
After using the word "empathy" in the Sotomayor nomination, he dropped it when conservatives confused it with sympathy and unfairness. But the idea didn't disappear.
By the 2013 Inaugural Address, he directly quoted the Declaration and Lincoln, overtly linking patriotism and the essence of democracy to empathy, to Americans caring for one another and taking responsibility for one another as well as themselves. He spoke overtly about how private success depends on public provisions. He carried out these themes with examples. And he had pretty much stopped making the mistake of using conservative language, even to negate it. The change in public discourse became palpable.
The 2013 SOTU followed this evolution a crucial step further. Instead of stating the frames overly, he took them for granted and the nation understood. Public discourse had shifted; brains had changed. So much so that John Boehner looked shamed as he slumped, sulking in his chair, as if trying to disappear. Changed so much that Marco Rubio's response was stale and defensive: the old language wasn't working and Rubio kept talking in rising tones indicating uncertainty.
Here is how Obama got to 77 percent approval as an unapologetic progressive.
The president set his theme powerfully in the first few sentences -- in about 30 seconds.
Fifty-one years ago, John F. Kennedy declared to this Chamber that 'the Constitution makes us not rivals for power but partners for progress...It is my task,' he said, 'to report the State of the Union -- to improve it is the task of us all.' Tonight, thanks to the grit and determination of the American people, there is much progress to report. ...
First, Obama recalled Kennedy -- a strong, unapologetic liberal. "Partners" evokes working together, an implicit attack on conservative stonewalling, while "for progress" makes clear his progressive direction. "To improve it is the task of us all" evokes the progressive theme that we're all in this together with the goal of improving the common good. "The grit and determination of the American people" again says we work together, while incorporating the "grit and determination" stereotype of Americans pulling themselves up by their bootstraps -- overcoming a "grinding war" and "grueling recession." He specifically and wisely did not pin the war and recession on the Bush era Republicans, as he reasonably could have. That would have divided Democrats from Republicans. Instead, he treated war and recession as if they were forces of nature that all Americans joined together to overcome. Then he moved on seamlessly to the "millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not yet been rewarded," which makes rewarding that work and determination "the task of us all."
This turn in discourse started working last year. Empathy and social responsibility as central American values reappeared in spades in the 2012 campaign right after Mitt Romney made his 47 percent gaff, that 47 percent of Americans were not succeeding because they were not talking personal responsibility for their lives. This allowed Obama to reframe people out of work, sick, injured, or retired as hard working and responsible and very much part of the American ideal, evoking empathy for them from most other Americans. It allowed him to meld the hard working and struggling Americans with the hard working and just getting by Americans into a progressive stereotype of hard working Americans in general who need help to overcome external forces holding them back. It is a patriotic stereotype that joins economic opportunity with equality, freedom and civil rights: "if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love."