Can Obama Win the Debate with Metaphors?

The Yale economist Robert J. Shiller is urging President Barack Obama to find a new metaphor to define his second term policies that would make inclusion its focus. Shiller means economic inclusion, which he sees as essential to our national and global progress. You can read Shiller’s post A Metaphor for Obama over at Project Syndicate.

Shiller says that inclusion is important because economist Daron Acemoglu and political scientist James Robinson have shown in their book Why Nations Fail that throughout history societies that include everyone are the most successful long-term.

We humans seem to be hard-wired to respond to metaphors. The historian James McPherson even argued the importance of metaphors to President Abraham Lincoln in an article entitled “How Lincoln Won the War with Metaphors.”

Shiller notes that the economic metaphor we are still most familiar with was President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Why has the New Deal metaphor been so enduring? Shiller explains:

The New Deal created an image of a commercial transaction, like the buyout of a  company or an incentive package for executives – something that contracting  parties bargain over and agree to. It is not imposed. By calling it a “deal,” Roosevelt made clear that the plan was not anti-business: it sounded  like an offer to work, to participate, to seize an opportunity. And, because  deals can be good or bad, fair or exploitative, the word “new” provided  metaphoric depth, suggesting that Roosevelt’s deal was better, fairer, and more  attractive.

The metaphor offered change that would bring improvement in material conditions without being a radical upheaval. In truth the genius of FDR was that he was what the political scientists Marc Landy and Sid Milkis refer to as a “conservative revolutionary” in their book Presidential Greatness. He was able to bring about great and beneficial change while couching it in the langauge of our political traditions, e.g., his “Economic Bill of Rights.”

Anyone have a good metaphor for President Obama?

About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts. Professor Cunningham is a regular contributor to the online magazine CommonwealthMagazine.org. He is a former assistant district attorney and assistant attorney general in Massachusetts. Professor Cunningham is a lifelong resident of Massachusetts. He earned his BA at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, his JD at New England School of Law, and PhD at Boston College. He lives in Cambridge with his wife and two children.
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