Maybe, just maybe, President Obama is finally shaking off his subdued demeanor and will resume the kind of soul-stirring leadership stance that carried him into office. Deliberately echoing the rambunctious Teddy Roosevelt, Obama's recent speech calling for an America that is "fair" reminded us all how powerfully he can state the case, and how powerfully we yearn for a leader who will demand the best from us and elected officials.
But, alas, he is still inept at framing the critical issues that differentiate him from the Republicans, and tone-deaf at using language that reinforces those differences.
There is a holy grail all successful marketers pursue with a passion: it is called "the involuntary head-nod." That head-nod signals that the hearer has just heard something they deeply agree with. The head-nod happens automatically, without the hearers even realizing they are nodding. It is triggered by just the right word or phrase or image that instantly reminds the listeners of what they care about.
The involuntary head-nod is never triggered by a carefully spelled-out intellectual rationale. But the President and his team don't seem to get this.
For example, in a 60 Minutes interview on Dec. 12, Steve Kroft confronted Obama, just after that TR-styled speech, and managed to splatter him with three polarizing images in just two sentences: "You were really talking about income inequality which suggests redistribution of wealth... there are going to be people who say, 'This is the socialist Obama, and he's come out of the closet.'" Three red flags in 10 seconds.
How did Obama respond? He said that everybody's concerned about income inequality and then went on to lament the difficulty of generating a common consensus of one-for-all sharing to build a strong middle class in America. His response was not only boring; it was far worse. By making the dubious assertion that "everyone" wants to redress income inequality, he tacitly agreed, "Yes, I want to tap into rich people's fortunes to beef up the middle class."
This is a total loser of a stance. The Occupy Wall Street demonstrations notwithstanding, Americans get very queasy about playing Robin Hood. We do indeed want "fair" as Obama noted, but, paradoxically, we are so fair-minded that when a proposal sounds like it could be a confiscation of somebody else's money, even from those who don't need it, we shy away from it.
Obama could have leap-frogged over Kroft's provocative language and re-framed the question on his own terms: "Steve, the Bush administration decided the richest Americans would love a cash bonus from the government, and so he told them they could just hold onto a trillion dollars that they were otherwise supposed to send to the U.S. treasury. Remember that? (Head-nod.) Giving them this gift may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but then the crash of 2008 came and we found ourselves in this ridiculous situation: on the one hand, American needs revenues worse than at any time in almost a century, right? (Head-nod.) And on the other hand, the richest Americans are sending in taxes at the lowest rate in almost a century, right? (Head-nod.) Doesn't take a genius to see what's wrong with this picture. (Head- nod.) And so all I'm saying is, the party's over. Uncle Sam is no longer your sugar daddy. No more cash gifts to the rich." (Head-nod.)
There is a world of difference between "redressing income inequality" and "cancelling a special cash bonus." Obama should reinforce the point by describing the Bush tax cuts for the rich as a "tax expenditure" -- money that would be flowing into our treasury right now except for the decision to spend it as a bonus. He should describe the termination of that supposedly "temporary" expenditure as "slashing government spending by a trillion dollars." Reclaiming these revenues is not "new taxes"; terminating these tax expenditures is exactly what everyone is crying for: reduction of government spending. (Head-nod.) We must stop spending money on everything we can't afford -- including cash gifts for the rich. (Head-nod.)
Preemptively taking charge of the framing and the language can upstage the poisonous taint of "new taxes" and "redistribution of wealth" and "socialism" and "class warfare." Obama should never, ever respond to those words at all, and especially refuse to get suckered into claiming "not guilty." He must ignore them completely and simply re-frame the issue on his own terms. If he doesn't, he loses ground. Whenever Obama and the Democrats allow themselves to discuss "making the rich pay more" and to rant about "income inequality," it unwittingly tweaks that instinctive gut-level reaction against Robin Hood-esque confiscation. It evokes the very opposite of the involuntary head nod: the involuntary head shake that says, "I don't think I agree." Even if most Americans envy the rich of their riches, almost none of us feel entitled to take it away from them. Avoiding any such perception is absolutely critical for Obama.
Similarly, Obama and his team should ban any further use of the word "regulation." It has been tainted beyond all hope of positive perception. They should employ instead the word that is the end-purpose of regulation: protection. Nobody wants regulation; but lots of us want and need protection from the manipulators who are doing their nefarious best to sell us shoddy investment vehicles they themselves are betting against or questionable foodstuffs they don't let their own families consume. We know we're completely overmatched by these manipulators' ability to hoodwink us, and we do need a skilled bodyguard to protect us when they try. (Head-nod.)
From now until November 2012, Obama and his team must put every single word of their intended utterances to the test: will it trigger an involuntary head-nod of approval or not? Sophisticated explanations cannot and will not do the job. But simply reminding Americans of what they already know and want can be absolutely magnetic.