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No Peace for Obama: How the Prize Might Harm His Image

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The collective groan you heard Friday morning came from the West Wing of the White House. As it was announced that President Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize, his advisers scrambled to figure out, ironically, how they could possibly spin the news to minimize the negative effects. For his part, the president was appropriately reserved, noting essentially that he did not deserve the award. That may be an accurate assessment, but what is more important than the decision of the prize committee are the potential negative political effects. In our assessment, President Obama is in deep trouble on this one.

We are certainly not unique in this assessment, of course. Several thoughtful ideas have been put forth in the past two days about the negative side of this honor (see here and here for just two examples). From our perspective, though, the trouble is not about whether the award was "deserved" or "earned," and it does not really stem from the attacks of folks like Rush Limbaugh or Michelle Malkin (both of whom thumped the president for his award on Friday). The trouble is not with the AM talk radio/Fox News crowd. There is no political ground to be lost to those folks because there is likely nothing that the president could do to win those folks over. David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel do not lose any sleep over the direct effect of what those folks think or say.

The trouble is with the indirect effects of such attacks, and the president's advisers know it. Specifically, there must be concern about the degree to which winning this award plays into the frame of Barack Obama as "other."

We have written about framing before (see here and here and here, for example). Along with agenda setting and priming, it is is one of the most notable theoretical advancement in media effects research in the past two decades. At its most basic level, framing involves putting information into context (and recognizing that information is processed contextually). And while much time has been spent arguing over what frames have been employed in given political contexts, one need not get hung up on the intent of persons to construct frames to understand their effects.

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Even though dozens (hundreds?) of framing studies have been published in the last 25 years, perhaps the most clear examples of framing effects comes from one of the earlier studies. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman reported results of some framing studies in a 1981 issue of the journal Science. They presented alternate versions of a problem to participants who were randomly assigned to one of two the groups. The exact factual elements of the choices presented to participants was the same, but the way that the choices were framed differed. The results were striking (well beyond conventional levels of statistical significance).
Imagine that the U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimates of the consequences of the programs are as follows:

If Program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved.

If Program B is adopted, there is a 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and 2/3 probability that no people will be saved.

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Which of the two programs would you favor?
Nearly three-quarters of the participants who were presented with this program (72%) chose Program A.

The other group got the problem with the same description, but the program response options were as follows:
If Program [A] is adopted 400 people will die.

If Program [B] is adopted, there is 1/3 probability that nobody will die, and 2/3 probability that 600 people will die.
Participants who got this formulation had a near reversal of the other group: 22% of them chose Program A, while 78% chose program B.

The only difference between the options, of course, is the way that they were presented. For both, Program B is the riskier choice, so when folks first read that they can "save" 200 people (a positively framed certainty), they are more likely to avoid the risk, but when the first option is worded as a certain negative ("400 people will die"), there is a greater likelihood to gamble and try to save everyone, even if the odds are poor.

So what does this have to do with Barack Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize?

Much (certainly not all) of the persistent criticism of President Obama over the last two years (beginning in the Democratic primaries, lest you think Republicans invented this) has centered on his "otherness." As we have noted a number of times in our weekly blog over the years, this certainly cannot be considered to be race neutral. But even if the intent is rooted in bigotry or racial resentment, it is easier for Americans to accept a theme of "otherness" about a person of color or a White woman than a White man because of the way we were (and are) socialized.

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So while Limbaugh, Beck and the rest of the president's most vocal opponents are largely irrelevant to the base of support that the president and his Democratic allies need to govern and win reelection, their language and imagery depicting Obama as "not one of us" has a great potential to take hold tacitly and shape the way that subsequent information about him is processed.

Because President George W. Bush was often depicted as not being very bright, every verbal gaffe, no matter how small, became exaggerated in the American imagination and served to reinforce that image of him in a way that such a mistake would not function with, for instance, this president, who is almost universally recognized as very bright, even by his opponents. Similar characteristics are true of other notable public figures: John Kerry as flip-flopper, Al Gore as boring, Bill Clinton as manipulative, John McCain as out-of-touch, etc. When Richard Nixon went to China in 1972, he was not widely criticized or suspected of pandering to the communists because there was no existing frame in place that would facilitate such a "reading" of the event. A president who was not such a staunch anti-communist would likely not have fared nearly as well.

So when Barack Obama is honored by "foreigners," particularly those rooted in democratic socialist nations like those in Scandinavia, it provides additional "evidence" of his otherness to those who are predisposed to believe that he "hates America" or, at least, is not proud to be American. While there are only a minority of Americans who consciously hold those attitudes, there is a real potential for the frame to take hold subconsciously because it is so often and persistently employed.

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Stephen Maynard Caliendo is associate professor of political science at North Central College. Charlton McIlwain is associate professor of media, culture and communication at New York University. They are co-authors of the forthcoming book "Race (more...)

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