The Obama Code

In the wake of President Obama's address to the joint session of Congress, what can we expect to hear?

The pundits will stress the nuts-and-bolts policy issues: the
banking system, education, energy, health care. But beyond policy,
there will be a vision of America--a moral vision and a view of unity
that the pundits often miss.

What they miss is the Obama Code. For the sake of unity, the
President tends to express his moral vision indirectly. Like other
self-aware and highly articulate speakers, he connects with his
audience using what cognitive scientists call the "cognitive
unconscious." Speaking naturally, he lets his deepest ideas simply
structure what he is saying. If you follow him, the deep ideas are
communicated unconsciously and automatically. " The Code is his most
effective way to bring the country together around fundamental American

For supporters of the President, it is crucial to understand the
Code in order to talk overtly about the old values our new president is
communicating. It is necessary because tens of millions of
Americans--both conservatives and progressives--don't yet perceive the
vital sea change that Obama is bringing about.

The word "code" can refer to a system of either communication or
morality. President Obama has integrated the two. The Obama Code is
both moral and linguistic at once. The President is using his enormous
skills as a communicator to express a moral system. As he has said,
budgets are moral documents. His economic program is tied to his moral
system and is discussed in the Code, as are just about all of his other

Behind the Obama Code are seven crucial intellectual moves that I
believe are historically, practically, and cognitively appropriate, as
well as politically astute. They are not all obvious, and jointly they
may seem mysterious. That is why it is worth sorting them out

1. Values Over Programs

The first move is to distinguish programs from the value systems
they represent. Every policy has a material aspect--the nuts and bolts
of how it works-- plus a typically implicit cognitive aspect that
represents the values and ideas behind the nuts and bolts. The
President knows the difference. He understands that those who see
themselves as "progressive" or "conservative" all too often define
those words in terms of programs rather than values. Even the programs
championed by progressives may not fit what the President sees as the
fundamental values of the country. He is seeking to align the programs
of his administration with those values.

The potential pushback will come not just from conservatives who do
not share his values, but just as much from progressives who make the
mistake of thinking that programs are values and that progressivism is
defined by a list of programs. When some of those programs are cut as
economically secondary or as unessential, their defenders will
inevitably see this as a conservative move rather than a move within an
overall moral vision they share with the President.

This separation between values and programs lies behind the
president's pledge to cut programs that don't serve those values and
support those that do -- no matter whether they are proposed by
Republicans or Democrats. The President's idealistic question is, what
policies serve what values? -- not what political interests?

2. Progressive Values are American Values

President Obama's second intellectual move concerns what the
fundamental American values are. In Moral Politics, I described what I
found to be the implicit, often unconscious, value systems behind
progressive and conservative thought. Progressive thought rests, first,
on the value of empathy--putting oneself in other people's shoes,
seeing the world through their eyes, and therefore caring about them.
The second principle is acting on that care, taking responsibility both
for oneself and others, social as well as individual responsibility.
The third is acting to make oneself, the country, and the world
better--what Obama has called an "ethic of excellence" toward creating
"a more perfect union" politically.

Historian Lynn Hunt, in Inventing Human Rights, has shown that those
values, beginning with empathy, lie historically behind the human
rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the
Constitution. Obama, in various interviews and speeches, has provided
the logical link. Empathy is not mere sympathy. Putting oneself in the
shoes of others brings with it the responsibility to act on that
empathy--to be "our brother's keeper and our sister's keeper"--and to
act to improve ourselves, our country, and the world.

The logic is simple: Empathy is why we have the values of freedom,
fairness, and equality -- for everyone, not just for certain
individuals. If we put ourselves in the shoes of others, we will want
them to be free and treated fairly. Empathy with all leads to equality:
no one should be treated worse than anyone else. Empathy leads us to
democracy: to avoid being subject indefinitely to the whims of an
oppressive and unfair ruler, we need to be able to choose who governs
us and we need a government of laws.

Obama has consistently maintained that what I, in my writings, have
called "progressive" values are fundamental American values. From his
perspective, he is not a progressive; he is just an American. That is a
crucial intellectual move.

Those empathy-based moral values are the opposite of the
conservative focus on individual responsibility without social
responsibility. They make it intolerable to tolerate a president who is
The Decider--who gets to decide without caring about or listening to
anybody. Empathy-based values are opposed to the pure self-interest of
a laissez-faire "free market," which assumes that greed is good and
that seeking self-interest will magically maximize everyone's
interests. They oppose a purely self-interested view of America in
foreign policy. Obama's foreign policy is empathy-based, concerned with
people as well as states--with poverty, education, disease, water, the
rights of women and children, ethnic cleansing, and so on around the

How are such values expressed? Take a look at the inaugural speech.
Empathy: "the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the
selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a
friend lose their job, the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway
filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a
child..." Responsibility to ourselves and others: "We have duties to
ourselves, the nation, and the world." The ethic of excellence: "there
is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of character, than
giving our all to a difficult task." They define our democracy: "This
is the meaning of our liberty and our creed."

The same values apply to foreign policy: "To the people of poor
nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish
and make clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry
minds." And to religion as well: By quoting language like "our
brother's keeper," he is communicating that mere individual
responsibility will not get you into Heaven, that social responsibility
and making the world better is required.

3. Biconceptualism and the New Bipartisanship

The third crucial idea behind the Obama Code is biconceptualism, the
knowledge that a great many people who identify themselves
ideologically as conservatives, or politically as Republicans or
Independents, share those fundamental American values--at least on
certain issues. Most "conservatives" are not thoroughgoing movement
conservatives, but are what I have called "partial progressives"
sharing Obama's American values on many issues. Where such folks agree
with him on values, Obama tries, and will continue to try, to work with
them on those issues if not others. And, he assumes, correctly believe,
that the more they come to think in terms of those American values, the
less they will think in terms of opposing conservative values.

Biconceptualism lay behind his invitation to Rick Warren to speak at
the inaugural. Warren is a biconceptual, like many younger
evangelicals. He shares Obama's views of the environment, poverty,
health, and social responsibility, though he is otherwise a
conservative. Biconceptualism is behind his "courting" of Republican
members of Congress. The idea is not to accept conservative moral
views, but to find those issues where individual Republicans already
share what he sees as fundamentally American values. He has "reached
across the aisle" to Richard Luger on nuclear proliferation, but not on

Biconceptualism is central to Obama's attempts to achieve unity --a
unity based on his understanding of American values. The current
economic failure gives him an opening to speak about the economy in
terms of those ideals: caring about all, prosperity for all,
responsibility for all by all, and good jobs for all who want to work.

I think Obama is correct about biconceptualism of this sort -- at
least where the overwhelming proportion of Americans is concerned. When
the President spoke at the Lincoln Day dinner recently about sensible
Midwestern Republicans, he meant biconceptual Republicans, who are
progressive and/or pragmatic on many issues.

But hardcore movement conservatives tend to be more ideological and
less biconceptual than their constituents. In the recent stimulus vote,
the hardcore movement conservatives kept party discipline (except for
three Senate votes) by threatening to run opposition candidates against
anyone who broke ranks. They were able to enforce this because the
conservative message machine is strong in their districts and there is
no nationwide progressive message machine operating in those districts.
The effectiveness of the conservative message machine led to Obama
making a rare mistake in communication, the mistake of saying out loud
in Florida not to think of Rush Limbaugh, thus violating the first rule
of framing and giving Rush Limbaugh even greater power.

Biconceptual, partly progressive, Republicans do exist in Congress,
and the president is not going to give up on them. But as long as the
conservative message machine can activate its values virtually
unopposed in conservative districts, movement conservatives can
continue to pressure biconceptual Republicans and keep them from voting
their conscience on many issues. This is why a nationwide progressive
message machine needs to be organized if the president is to achieve
unity through biconceptualism.

4. Protection and Empowerment

The fourth idea behind the Obama Code is the President's
understanding of government--"not whether our government is too big or
too small, but whether it works." This depends on what "works" means.
The word sounds purely pragmatic, but it is moral in operation.

The idea is that government has twin moral missions: protection and
empowerment. Protection includes not just military and police
protection, but protections for the environment, consumers, workers,
pensioners, disaster victims, and investors.

Empowerment is what his stimulus package is about: it includes
education and other forms of infrastructure--roads, bridges,
communications, energy supply, the banking system and stock market. The
moral mission of government is simple: no one can earn a living in
America or live an American life without protection and empowerment by
the government. The stimulus package is basically an empowerment
package. Taxes are what you pay for living in America, rather than in
Congo or Bangladesh. And the more money you make from government
protection and empowerment, the more you owe in return. Progressive
taxation is a matter of moral accounting. Tax cuts for the middle class
mean that the middle class hasn't been getting as much as it has been
contributing to the nation's productivity for many years.

This view of government meshes with our national ideal of equality.
There needs to be moral equality: equal protection and equal
empowerment. We all deserve health care protection, retirement
protection, worker protection, employment protection, protection of our
civil liberties, and investment protection. Protection and empowerment.
That's what "works" means--"whether it helps families find jobs at a
decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified."

5. Morality and Economics Fit Together

Crises are times of opportunity. Budgets are moral statements.
President Obama has put these ideas together. His economic program is a
moral program and conversely. Why the quartet of leading economic
issues--education, energy, health, banking? Because they are at the
heart of government's moral mission of protection and empowerment, and
correspondingly, they are what is needed to act on empathy, social and
personal responsibility, and making the future better. The economic
crisis is also an opportunity. It requires him to spend hundreds of
billions of dollars on the right things to do.

6. Systemic Causation and Systemic Risk

Conservatives tend to think in terms of direct causation. The
overwhelming moral value of individual, not social, responsibility
requires that causation be local and direct. For each individual to be
entirely responsible for the consequences of his or her actions, those
actions must be the direct causes of those consequences. If systemic
causation is real, then the most fundamental of conservative moral--and
economic--values is fallacious.

Global ecology and global economics are prime examples of systemic
causation. Global warming is fundamentally a system phenomenon. That is
why the very idea threatens conservative thinking. And the global
economic collapse is also systemic in nature. That is at the heart of
the death of the conservative principle of the laissez-faire free
market, where individual short-term self-interest was supposed to be
natural, moral, and the best for everybody. The reality of systemic
causation has left conservatism without any real ideas to address
global warming and the global economic crisis.

With systemic causation goes systemic risk. The old rational actor
model taught in economics and political science ignored systemic risk.
Risk was seen as local and governed by direct causation, that is, buy
short-term individual decisions. The investment banks acted on their
own short-term risk, based on short-term assumptions, for example, that
housing prices would continue to rise or that bundles of mortgages once
secure for the short term would continue to be "secure" and could be
traded as "securities."

The systemic nature of ecological and economic causation and risk
have resulted in the twin disasters of global warming and global
economic breakdown. Both must be dealt with on a systematic, global,
long-term basis. Regulating risk is global and long-term, and so what
are required are world-wide institutions that carry out that regulation
in systematic way and that monitor causation and risk systemically, not
just locally.

President Obama understands this, though much of the country does
not. Part of his challenge will be to formulate policies that carry out
these ideas and to communicate these ideas as well as possible to the

7. Contested Concepts and Patriotic Language

As President, Barack Obama must speak in patriotic language. But all
patriot language in this country is "contested." Every major patriotic
term has a core meaning that we all understand the same way. But that
common core meaning is very limited in its application. Most uses of
patriotic language are extended from the core on the basis of either
conservative or progressive values to produce meanings that are often
opposite from each other.

I've written a whole book, Whose Freedom?, on the word "freedom" as
used by conservatives and progressives. In his second inaugural, George
W. Bush used "freedom," "free," and "liberty" over and over--first,
with its common meaning, then shifting to its conservative meaning:
defending "freedom" as including domestic spying, torture and
rendition, denial of habeus corpus, invading a country that posed no
threat to us, a "free market" based on greed and short-term profits for
the wealthy, denying sex education and access to women's health
facilities, denying health care to the poor, and leading to the killing
and maiming of innocent civilians in Iraq by the hundreds of thousands,
all in the name of "freedom." It was anything but a progressive's view
of freedom--and anything but the view intended in the Declaration of
Independence or the Constitution.

For forty years, from the late 1960's through 2008, conservatives
managed, through their extensive message machine, to reframe much of
our political discourse to fit their worldview. President Obama is
reclaiming our patriotic language after decades of conservative
dominance, to fit what he has correctly seen as the ideals behind the
founding of our country.

"Freedom" will no longer mean what George W. Bush meant by it.
Guantanamo will be closed, torture outlawed, the market regulated.
Obama's inaugural address was filled with framings of patriotic
concepts to fit those ideals. Not just the concept of freedom, but also
equality, prosperity, unity, security, interests, challenges, courage,
purpose, loyalty, patriotism, virtue, character, and grace. Look at
these words in his inaugural address and you will see how Obama has
situated their meaning within his view of fundamental American values:
empathy, social and well as personal responsibility, improving yourself
and your country. We can expect further reclaiming of patriotic
language throughout his administration.

All this is what "change" means. In his policy proposals the
President is trying to align his administration's policies with the
fundamental values of the Framers of our Constitution. In seeking
"bipartisan" support, he is looking beyond political affiliations to
those who share those values on particular issues. In his economic
policy, he is realigning our economy with the moral missions of
government: protection and empowerment for all.

It's Us, Not Just Him

The president is the best political communicator of our age. He has
the bully pulpit. He gets media attention from the press. His website
is running a permanent campaign, Organizing for Obama, run by his
campaign manager David Plouffe. It seeks issue-by-issue support from
his huge mailing list. There are plenty of progressive blogs. now has over five million members. And yet that is nowhere
near enough.

The conservative message machine is huge and still going. There are
dozens of conservative think tanks, many with very large communications
budgets. The conservative leadership institutes are continuing to turn
out thousands of trained conservative spokespeople every year. The
conservative apparatus for language creation is still functioning.
Conservative talking points are still going out to their network of
spokespeople, who still being booked on tv and radio around the
country. About 80% of the talking heads on tv are conservatives. Rush
Limbaugh and Fox News are as strong as ever. There are now progressive
voices on MSNBC, Comedy Central, and Air America, but they are still
overwhelmed by Right's enormous megaphone. Republicans in Congress can
count on overwhelming message support in their home districts and homes
states. That is one reason why they were able to stonewall on the
President's stimulus package. They had no serious media competition at
home pounding out the Obama vision day after day.

Such national, day-by-day media competition is necessary. Democrats
need to build it. Democratic think tanks are strong on policy and
programs, but weak on values and vision. Without the moral arguments
based on the Obama values and vision, the policymakers most likely be
unable to regularly address both independent voters and the
Limbaugh-FoxNews audiences in conservative Republican strongholds.

The president and his administration cannot build such a
communication system, nor can the Democrats in Congress. The DNC does
not have the resources. It will be up to supporters of the Obama
values, not just supporters on the issues, to put such a system in
place. Despite all the organizing strength of Obama supporters, no such
organizing effort is now going on. If none is put together, the
movement conservatives will face few challenges of fundamental values
in their home constituencies and will be able to go on stonewalling
with impunity. That will make the president's vision that much harder
to carry out.


The Obama Code is based on seven deep, insightful, and subtle
intellectual moves. What President Obama has been attempting in his
speeches is a return to the original frames of the Framers,
reconstituting what it means to be an American, to be patriotic, to be
a citizen and to share in both the sacrifices and the glories of our
country. In seeking "bipartisan" support, he is looking beyond
political affiliations to those who share those values on particular
issues. In his economic plan, he is attempting to realign our economy
with the moral missions of government: protection and empowerment for

The president hasn't fooled the radical ideological conservatives in
Congress. They know progressive values when they see them -- and they
see them in their own colleagues and constituents too often for
comfort. The radical conservatives are aware that this economic crisis
threatens not only their political support, but the very underpinnings
of conservative ideology itself. Nonetheless, their brains have not
been changed by facts. Movement conservatives are not fading away. They
think their conservative values are the real American values. They
still have their message machine and they are going to make the most of
it. The ratings for Fox News and Rush Limbaugh are rising. Without a
countervailing communications system on the Democratic side, they can
create a lot of trouble, not just for the president, not just for the
nation, but on a global scale, for the environmental and economic
future of the world.

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