co-authored with Elisabeth Wehling
As of their kickoff speeches in Ohio, Romney and Obama have both chosen economics as their major campaign theme. And thus the question of how they frame the economy will be crucial throughout the campaign. Their two speeches could not be more different.
Where Romney talks morality (conservative style), Obama mainly talks policy. Where Romney reframes Obama, Obama does not reframe Romney. In fact, he reinforces Romney's frames in the first part of his speech by repeating Romney's language word for word -- without spelling out his own values explicitly.
Where Romney's framing is moral, simple and straightforward, Obama's is policy-oriented, filled with numbers, details, and so many proposals that they challenge ordinary understanding.
Where Obama talks mainly about economic fairness, Romney reframes it as economic freedom.
Here's a discussion of Obama's speech.
Obama began his kickoff campaign speech in Cleveland stating that he is "in complete agreement" with Romney: "This election is about our economic future. Yes, foreign policy matters. Social issues matter. But more than anything else, this election presents a choice between two fundamentally different visions" regarding economic policy.
Obama's strategy is to pin the Bush economic disaster on Romney, with good reason, since Romney has essentially the same policies as Bush. Since Obama has not consistently pinned the blame on Bush over the past four years, he comes off as defensive.
Romney's strategy is to pin the disaster on Obama. He uses the Caretaker Metaphor -- Obama has been the national caretaker, so the present condition is his responsibility. Since Obama started out assuming a caretaker's responsibility, it is difficult for him to escape the frame now. He should have avoided it from the beginning. Pinning the disaster on Bush is possible, but it will take a lot of repetition, not just by the president, but by Democrats in general. Not just a repetition of economic facts, but of the moral differences that led to both the Bush disaster and the Obama attempt to recoup.
Perhaps the most important omission from the Obama speech was any overt mention of The Public -- everything that our citizenry as a whole provides to all, e.g., roads, bridges, infrastructure, education, protection, a health system, and systems for communication, energy development and supply, and so on. The Private -- private life and private enterprise -- depends on The Public. There is no economic freedom without all of this. So-called "free enterprise" is not free. A free market economy depends on a strong Public. This is a deep truth, easy to recognize. It undercuts Romney's central pitch, that is it private enterprise alone that has made our country great, and that as much as possible of The Public should be eliminated.
Romney calls free enterprise "one of the greatest forces of good this world has ever known." In reality, America free enterprise has always required The Public.
Romney attacks The Public, speaking of "the heavy hand of government" and "the invisible boot of government." The contrast is with the putative "invisible hand" of the market -- which leads to the good of all if everyone follows their self-interest and the market's natural force is not interfered with. Romney's "invisible boot" evokes the image of a storm trooper's boot on your neck. The government is the storm trooper, your enemy. You are weak and in an impossible position. You can't move -- a metaphor for being held back and not being able to freely engage in the economy. Romney uses the frame consistently: "The federal establishment," he says," has never seemed so hostile." The Public is an "establishment" -- an undemocratic institution -- which is the enemy of the people. It is implicit in this frame that the government is not the people.
Romney's assumption here is that democracy is based on the "liberty" to seek one's self interest with minimal regard to the interests or well being of others. People who are good at this will succeed, and they deserve to. People who are not good at this will fail, and they should. In Romney's speech, "The Freedom to Dream," he used the word "freedom" 29 times. This is what he means.
Although Obama intends to argue against this understanding, he unintentionally feeds it. He does so in three ways: First, by accepting and reinforcing many of Romney's central frames (often by negating them); second, by moving to the right in his own argumentation; and third, by not spelling out his own moral principles explicitly right from the start.
Here are three examples of Obama repeating Romney's frames (in bold):
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