Barack Obama and the Framing of the Debate
In the first presidential debate of the general election, polls show that Barack Obama dominated in the discussion of economics. A USA Today/Gallup poll shows that 34% of viewers had more confidence in Obama's economic agenda as a result of the debate, while only 26% said they had less confidence. McCain's results were nearly the opposite, with only 23% having more confidence and 37% having less confidence.
On the other hand, McCain and Obama broke even when viewers were questioned about any shift in their perceptions regarding the candidates' stances on foreign policy. This was in spite of McCain's strident defense of a deeply unpopular war.
Professor George Lakoff has popularized understanding of the use frames in political debate, and I believe his theories provide us a strong road map for understanding these results. Lakoff believes that whoever frames the debate, will win the debate. And while Obama strongly framed the economic debate, he accepted far too much of McCain's frame for the foreign policy debate.
On economic issues, Obama presented the difference clearly: government regulation and progressive taxation to build the economy from the bottom up vs. deregulated markets and other policies designed to stimulate the economy from the top down. Obama argued for the former clearly and compellingly, and as a result, his individual policies fell neatly into place, creating a strong sense of internal logic to what he was saying, and creating an aura of integrity for himself around those issues.
On the other hand, in the discussion over foreign policy, Obama accepted much of McCain's frame, and it blunted what should have been a natural advantage in that arena. The more conservative version of the narrative goes as follows:
Small but powerful bands of ruthless terrorists are hell-bent on killing us and destroying our culture. These terrorists exist in dozens of countries. Their grievances are unreasonable and unresolvable and therefore can not be addressed with negotiation or good will. Overwhelming and unilateral military force is the only way to protect ourselves.
The progressive version of the narrative, on the other hand, says, more or less:
Diplomacy, negotiation, justice, and development are the foundation of peace. Terrorism is the violence of the weak against the strong, and terrorist groups recruit from amongst the angry, the poor and the oppressed. Overwhelming military force and occupation results in the killing of innocent people, even if some legitimate terrorists are stopped in the process. That, in turn, leads to increased support for radical ideologies and groups that practice terrorism.
Of course, these are oversimplifications, but they should be good enough to demonstrate the point. Obama invoked both frames intermittently, and it created a lack of internal consistency to his positions which weaken both his positions and his apparent integrity.
For example, Obama invokes the conservative frame in several ways such as: agreeing that we need to use overwhelming military force as our tool in Afghanistan - and perhaps more strikingly, even in Pakistan, with or without the support of the Pakistani government; stating that Al Qaeda exists in 60 countries, creating a justification for attacking a huge number of countries in the world; using the phrase "hunt and kill," thereby dehumanizing the enemy; and finally, accepting that the "surge" has been successful, thereby supporting the idea that problems can be solved through a simple increase in military force.
On the other hand, he argues we should leave Iraq in 16 months. But the questions is, why? If indeed terrorists are in 60 countries, which would certainly include Iraq, and overwhelming military force is the proper method, and the surge is working, then why should we leave Iraq a couple years earlier, if it means the possibility of rolling back all the progress we've made there? It appears cowardly and weak, and it doesn't make any logical sense. At best, it appears selfish - cutting our losses and leaving Iraq to fend for itself.
Leaving Iraq does make sense though, if you believe that the violent nature of the occupation in and of itself creates terrorism. The solution may be U.N. troops, assistance to pro-democracy groups in Iraq, development assistance and more, but unilateral and overwhelming force will fail in the long-term. The downturn in violence in Iraq can be seen as a temporary improvement held together by massive amounts of U.S. tax dollars rather than as proof of a successful strategy that will persist.
Of course, the fact that Iraq had nothing to do with 911 is also compelling, but by talking about the fact that Al Qaeda exists in 60 countries, Obama works against the premise of this frame, which is that terrorism is isolated to specific groups and actions, rather than a ubiquitous and ever-present evil, particularly in the Islamic world.
Obama invokes the progressive frame as well, in pushing for direct talks with Iran, where his arguments are persuasive in that they are a simple matter of common sense. But he doesn't take his foreign policy frame far enough, and ends up creating a patchwork of individual positions that aren't bound by a strong frame, and in turn, have loads of internal contradictions. So, McCain, despite his support of an deeply unpopular war, ended up breaking even with Obama.
Obama, while hinting at and skirting the edges of the progressive frame, never argued forcefully for it, in a way that would be convincing to those who didn't already share the paradigm. In addition, Obama's individual policies should fit into the overall frame. For example, Obama could have talked about his actual plan to provide a large amount of development assistance to Afghanistan. The idea is not to rule out military force in all situations, but rather to invoke cooperation and negotiation in all its forms, as the primary method of achieving peace.
It's understandable that candidates are afraid to speak out against dominant paradigms, fearing that voters accustomed to a certain point of view may not be persuadable, but those who are able to articulate clear frames will not only change minds, but they will earn respect of undecided voters, who are looking for integrity as much as they are any particular policy position.