George Lakoff has an interesting take on President Obama’s April 13th speech. While the speech was ostensibly about the budget, Lakoff argues that Obama was making two larger points:
1. President Obama was laying out a progressive vision of democracy. Here is how Lakoff sums it up:
The basic idea is this: Democracy is based on empathy, that is, on citizens caring about each other and acting on that care, taking responsibility not just for themselves but for their families, communities, and their nation. The role of government is to carry out this principle in two ways: protection and empowerment.
Obama quotes Lincoln: “to do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves.” That is what he calls patriotism. He spotlights “the American belief… that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security… that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard time or bad luck, crippling illness or a layoff, may strike any one of us.” He cites the religious version of this moral vision: “There but for the grace of God go I.” The greatness of America comes from carrying out such moral commitments as Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid.
It would be an interesting public discussion to have over whether these three programs are a moral commitment. I suspect that a good number of Americans would see it this way but this is not the typical angle taken in public discourse.
2. President Obama highlighted the role of systems and how a budget cannot be isolated from other important needs and goals in society:
President Obama, in the same speech, laid the groundwork for another crucial national discussion: systems thinking, which has shown up in public discourse mainly in the form of “systemic risk” of the sort that led to the global economic meltdown. The president brought up systems thinking implicitly, at the center of his budget proposal. He observed repeatedly that budget deficits and “spending” do not occur in isolation. The choice of what to cut and what to keep is a matter of factors external to the budget per se.
Long-term prosperity, economic recovery, and job creation, he argued, depend up maintaining “investments” — investments in infrastructure (roads, bridges, long-distance rail), education, scientific research, renewable energy, and so on. The maintenance of American values, he argued, is outside of the budget in itself, but is at the heart of the argument about what to cut. The fact is that the rich have gotten rich because of the government — direct corporate subsidies, access to publicly-owned resources, access to government research, favorable trade agreements, roads and other means of transportation, education that provides educated workers, tax loopholes, and innumerable government resources taken advantage of by the rich, but paid for by all of us. What is called a “tax break” for the rich is actually a redistribution of wealth from the poor and middle class whose incomes have gone down to those who have considerably more money than they need, money they have made because of tax investments by the rest of America…
Progressives tend to think more readily in terms of systems than conservatives. We see this in the answers to a question like, “What causes crime?” Progressives tend to give answers like economic hardship, or lack of education, or crime-ridden neighborhoods. Conservatives tend more to give an answer like “bad people — lock ’em up, punish ’em.” This is a consequence of a lifetime of thinking in terms of social connection (for progressives) and individual responsibility (for conservatives). Thus conservatives did not see the president’s plan, which relied on systemic causation, as a plan at all for directly addressing the deficit.
This sort of systems thinking sounds like sociological approaches to the world: the complex social realm can be difficult to understand and predict but settling on simple (often individualistic) explanations leaves much to desired.
I can imagine that conservatives might find holes with Lakoff’s argument, not the least that all of this explanation still doesn’t say much about how the United States could deal with its budget issues. But Lakoff highlights the cultural ideas and values surrounding political debate: speeches and political activities may be about budgets and practical matters but there are underlying values that guide such actions.