The Secret of Obama’s Success and Why He’ll Keep Winning – He Listens to George Lakoff

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank captured the angst foes of Barack Obama are feeling.

The Clintons in the past couple of weeks have done all they could to cook him up into an airy souffle, a candidate so light in substance that he collapses when speared. They exposed him as a guy who copies others’ speeches and makes lofty pledges only to break them.

And yet: The Obama Souffle continues to rise.

Why that is has befuddled many Democrats, particularly Clinton followers. How can Obama score so many wins by offering so little — just hope — and yet everything — hope?

I can answer that question. It’s because Obama gets it. He’s been reading the George Lakoff and Rockridge Institute playbook, Thinking Points and skillfully applying it. Lakoff and Rockridge rewrote the progressive strategy with the concept of framing. Had my guy, John Edwards, followed their advice and like Obama, gone lighter on the policies and heavier on the values, he might be where Obama is today. Dennis Kucinich would have won a primary or two. John Kerry might be president now. Al Gore would not have needed the Supreme Court in 2000.

At some point, Clinton allowed herself to morph into the candidate who does not represent change and derides hope, the authority figure who announces the party is over and it’s time to get back to work. Who wants to vote for that?

Richard Wirthlin, chief strategist for former president Ronald Reagan, made a discovery in 1980 that profoundly changed American politics. As a pollster, he was taught that people vote for candidates on the basis of the candidates’ positions on issues. But his initial polls for Reagan revealed something fascinating: Voters who didn’t agree with Reagan on the issues still wanted to vote for him…

Reagan talked about values rather than issues. Communicating values mattered more than specific policy positions. Reagan connected with people; he communicated well…It was not because all of his values matched theirs exactly. It was not because he was from their socioeconomic class or subculture. It was because they believed in the integrity of his connection with them as well as the connection between his worldview and his actions.

Are Lakoff and Rockridge saying that personality matters more than positions? Pretty much. Because if you don’t have the right kind of the former, you will never get to act on the latter.

Issues are secondary — not irrelevant or unimportant, but secondary. A position on issues should follow from one’s values, and the choice of issues and policies should symbolize those values.

One misunderstanding, common among progressive circles, is that the Reagan and George W. Bush elections were about “personality” rather than anything substantive. Nothing is more substantive than a candidate’s moral worldview — and whether he or she authentically abides by it.

Wirthlin’s discovery happened to be about a presidential candidate, but it applies much more broadly. It should be taken to heart by all progressives: Concentrate on values and principles. Be authentic; stand up for what you really believe. Empathize and connect with the people you are talking to, on the basis of identity — their identity and yours.

In Hillary’s better moments, before she stumbled and brought Bill and other surrogates out to take cheap shots, she was doing this. At some point, she allowed herself to morph into the candidate who does not represent change, the candidate who derides hope, the authority figure who announces the party is over and it’s time to get back to work. Who wants to vote for that?

Thinking Points lists 12 traps that progressives often fall into, and Hillary and her supporters exemplify many of them.

The Laundry List Trap. Progressives tend to believe that people vote on the basis of lists of programs and policies. In fact, people vote based on values, connection, authenticity, trust, and identity.

The Rationalism Trap. There is a commonplace — and false — theory that reason is completely conscious, literal…, logical, universal, and unemotional. Cognitive science has shown that every one of these assumptions is false. These assumptions lead progressives into other traps: assuming that hard facts will persuade voters, that voters are “rational” and vote in their self-interest and on the issues, and that negating a frame is an effective way to argue against it.

The Policies-Are-Values Trap. Progressives regularly mistake policies with values, which are ethical ideas like empathy, responsibility, fairness, freedom, justice, and so on. Policies are not themselves values, though they are, or should be, based on values. Thus, Social Security and universal health insurance are not values; they are policies meant to reflect and codify the values of human dignity, the common good, fairness, and equality.

The Centrist Trap. A common mistaken ideology has convinced many progressives that they must “move to the right” to get more votes. In reality, this is counterproductive. By moving to the right, progressives actually help activate the right’s values and give up on their own. In the process, they also alienate their base.

Those calling for more steak and less sizzle from Obama should give it up. The senator’s instincts are perfect, and there’s only one thing better than perfection: hope.

Update from Bruce Budner, Exective Director of the Rockridge Institute: “Rockridge is a non-partisan think tank and doesn’t work with or endorse Obama or any candidate or party, but we are so gratified to see that a candidate is proving the wisdom of our message.”


  • February 20, 2008 - 1:03 pm | Permalink

    We had a story up this morning about the Matthews-Watson exchange – here.

  • February 20, 2008 - 5:01 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been seeing it in a variety of media. Presidential Candidate Obama is not perfect. He is said to have had dealings with people whose interests are not in the best interest of the American people. He has espoused policies that many of us do not agree to be in line with our own.

    There are no perfect people, no candidates for elected office who can pass any possible test of political correctness or be gloriously free of nits to be picked.

    I am even quite willing to believe that our whole political process is controlled by some evil imperial cabal, and we have no real choice. That being the case, we may as well support the candidate we will most enjoy listening to over the next 4 years. I am an over fifty, working class, white woman who enthusiatically supported President Clinton through the ’90s. I now enthusiastically support Senator Obama’s candidacy for President, because his is the message I want to see spread throughout this land. I am not settling for any lesser anything. In my estimate (ymmv) he is the best candidate I’ve seen in my lifetime.

    The way I am coming to view it, the dichotomy in this country over the candidates is not about gender or race. If you want a good manager who will keep things in line, under control, take care of us, you are probably supporting Senator Clinton. If you want an inspirational leader who will help us find our own voices and aspirations and become a movement of people working together for the common good, you are probably supporting Senator Obama. If you want the old American values of war and big business, you are probably supporting Senator McCain.

    Face it, the only way we will have real choices, real control over how our common issues are worked out, without oppression from big government and monied interests, is to take back our power and take care of ourselves and each other on the local level. Of course, it’s much easier to make the perfect the enemy of the good, spread rumors and malcontent, make ugly battle out of what could be uplifting debate, than to take on the real work of improving our common lot.


  • Kathleen Green
    February 20, 2008 - 5:36 pm | Permalink

    I am having the pleasure to volunteer for Obamas’ campaign in Austin,Tx.One reason I am doing so is because he reflects Rockridge sentiments!

  • February 20, 2008 - 6:01 pm | Permalink

    Uh huh. I’ve been impressed by this too.

  • February 20, 2008 - 6:11 pm | Permalink

    There is a cautionary note. There is a theory that the Rove filth have deliberately fed Republican monies into the Obama campaign because the GOP would prefer him as an opponent (supposedly they have real dirt on him). This may not be entirely far-fetched. I still wonder how Kerry ever came up from nowhere to take the place of Dean in 2004.

  • Jim
    February 20, 2008 - 6:16 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for shining the light on why I have begun to admire Obama so much. I am more of a policy person, I like reading the hard facts. That is why I was a bit confused about why I like him so much, now I understand. I hope Rockridge keeps up the great work, as I know they will!

  • Adrienne4Dean
    February 21, 2008 - 12:42 am | Permalink

    Since when are “hope” and “change” among George Lakoff’s list of progressive values? Obama’s vague proto-promises have surface appeal, but contain so little information that they could as easily be delivered by a clever centrist or even a deceptive corporatist — someone like Obama’s alter ego caught on tape praising the “transformational” nature of Ronald Reagan’s presidency after the “excesses” of prior Democratic administrations. What kind of progressive candidate would be unaware of the damage Reagan unleashed against the truly transformational New Deal? This unguarded moment, together with his constant repetition of Republican frames (tax cuts, free trade, Social Security in trouble, universal health care “mandate”…) reveal Senator Obama to be a skilled manipulator, with at best questionable values.

    Here’s something that any cook knows about soufflés: they are fragile. All it takes is a good bump and they go flat. Let’s hope Obama’s inspirational “progressive values” are more than just air — and if not, that America wakes up and chooses the substantive candidate, before it’s too late.


  • Robert Tracy
    February 21, 2008 - 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Hope is a good message that becomes even better when it is linked to progressive values, and even best when both hope and progressive values are linked to policies and past accomplishments. All of this is true, I think, of Obama’s candidacy, and internet searches bear this out. That Obama has been reading about framing is plausible, as he is good at recognizing underlying frames implicit in questions. If all he was offering were a message of hope, he would be vulnerable to attack. The hope message is clear, and the linkages to the values and accomplishments should become clearer to people as the campaign proceeds.

  • OBamaSupporter
    February 21, 2008 - 4:43 pm | Permalink

    Adrienne4Dean –

    I am always amused when people say Obama has no substance. Have you even read his policies which are VERY clearly outlined on his site? It amazes me that people say that about him and don’t take the time to get informed.

    I wonder if someone could research what kind of people are not influenced positively by hope. That is a phenomonen to consider. People actually seem to be angered that he offers hope to so many people and somehow feel the need to scoff at that. Someone w/ hope and substance, but lets just say no substance “because the hope idea just really irks me”.


  • serena1313
    February 21, 2008 - 5:27 pm | Permalink

    I spent the past two years researching all the candidates from both parties. I came to the conclusion Barack Obama should become the next president. The more I read the more convinced I became. Granted Obama is not perfect nor do I agree with all of his positions, but he is one of the finest candidates America has seen in decades.

    Obama is a visionary. And he is a leader. People of all stripes regardless of political affiliation, colour, race are attracted to him because he unites us in a common cause and encourages the electorate to engage and participate in the political process.

    His background as a community organizer, civil rights attorney, Constitutional law professor, a state senator and a US senator uniquely qualifies him to become the next president. His approach to foreign is pragmatic, sensible and diplomatic.

    Obama did not come from wealth and privilege. Yet he chose public service over lucrative job offers. His commitment to social justice is not rhetoric; it is real. Learning from the ground up gives Obama another unique perspective to work from. Thus when he says something people tend to trust him because of his acts. The timing is perfect; he is someone the country needs.

    We, as world citizens, share a common interest: security. We, as world citizens, share a common interest: humanity. The way to achieve individual, national and world security entails making every person secure.

    Words alone mean nothing, promises mean nothing until those words and promises become actions. Obama not only acts on his convictions, he acts on his word. And that basically, in simplistic terms, describes Obama’s moral philosophy. His record speaks for itself.

    Decisions that reflect a deep sense of justice, compassion & empathy for humanity with the intelligence & reasoned logic tempered by patience are rare qualities found in politicians today. However they define Obama.

    Without inspiration there is no motivation. Without hope there is nothing to live for.

  • J Snow
    February 21, 2008 - 7:31 pm | Permalink

    George W Bush claimed to be a uniter and a significant minority of people voted for him believing that he would end the Republican divisiveness of the Clinton years. The theft of two elections and the worst poll ratings in American history pay tribute to the absolute immoral corruptness of George W Bush and his band of thugs.

    Of course Bush was part and parcel of the Republican Slander Machine and elevated the politics of hatred on a global scale.

    The American People desperately still want a uniter and see Barack Obama as the only true uniter in this field of candidates. He’s tall, thin and handsome and speaks with a golden tongue.

    I see Obama has capturing the hearts and minds of the American people. Now if he can only stay alive through two terms without Secret Service-assisted murder attempts, America will be a better place for all (see today’s news about the Secret Service’s failure to screen for guns at Obama’s Dallas, TX rally).

  • February 21, 2008 - 7:47 pm | Permalink


  • Mark Shepherd
    February 21, 2008 - 8:06 pm | Permalink
  • Jaimas
    February 22, 2008 - 12:10 am | Permalink

    This is something I love: “IF OBAMA WINS, I WON’T VOTE!!” I’ve heard it from my mother, and I’ve heard it from other old-generation dems (mostly bluehairs).

    As a former Deaniac who stood aghast as the DLC committed their character assassination on Dean back in 2000 by cutting his mic, I know how you feel in getting upset – nay, angry – that your candidate is losing.

    But this crap has got to stop. We have to remain united – whether Hillary wins, or Obama, this is a time for democratic solidarity. Do not fall into the trap of “not supporting Obama because he’s an empty suit” or “not supporting Hillary because she’s DLC” – being divided because of things like this reeks of Nader’s involvement in the last 2 election cycles.

    It’s time to wake up, grow up, and do what’s right.

  • Adrienne4Dean
    February 22, 2008 - 2:05 am | Permalink

    “…People actually seem to be angered that he offers hope to so many people and somehow feel the need to scoff at that…”

    Hope is a powerful emotion. Be careful what you hope for. It’s true that Obama links the word hope with progressive themes. What’s missing is what he plans to do to fulfill peoples’ hopes. Obama often describes the problem, but gives no hint about the solution. His campaign very deliberately avoids exposing those details, leaving it up to people’s imaginations. Yes, there’s stuff on the web site — but the example of a Texas endorser not knowing a single legislative accomplishment indicates that a substantive understanding of why Obama is the most qualified for the most important job on earth is not what is compelling his supporters. I’ve no doubt that he can get elected without that deep level of understanding. That doesn’t make it a wise decision. We’re already living with the result of a decision like that — where voters set aside the proven for the promise.

    I feel hope when Hillary describes what she will change, not just because her vision fits my values, but because I don’t have to guess what “change” means.


  • MinerSam
    February 22, 2008 - 3:32 am | Permalink

    I measure candidates’ character by the honesty of their campaigns. This puts the onuns on me to become highly informed.

    This is why I will not be voting for Obama, and voting for Hillary. Because Obama has been complicit with the GE-TVs and the CNNs of the world (a station that is to journalim what painting by numbers is to art) and which people call the Corporate Media (CM), beholden to the Republican party for Media Consolidation) have been Swiftboating Hillary.

    I was Media Trained in a large corporation, and have not only seen every debate on both sides, and about 20 stump speeches each by both Obama and Hillary, but since 2000 (when Republicans sent paid aids on the Enron Plane to riot outside the vote recount room) I have had C-SPAN, CNBC and the “Unpundits” on 20 hours a day.

    Obama has been running a dishonest campaing, And while “Framing” is everything (especially with an electorate too busy working that has been dummed down) Nevertheless Democrats simply do not need to be dishonest. And framing does not need to be dishonest. This is the Republican way.

    Obama has been dishonest about Hillary’s vote on Iraq. I saw the CONDITIONS she (and Kerry for that matter) for her vote on Iraq, and everything that went on before and after it.

    After almost 1 year of Mr. Bush trying to get that vote he finally said that War would only be as a last resort.



    But instead of, in the mean time, Mr. Bush forming a coalition that included Iraq’s neighbors like Bush 1 did, HE PUSHED OUT THE INSPECTORS AND WENT IN AS A FIRST RESORT.

    Obama was not even in the Senate when they took that vote and after he got there said he “didn’t know how he would have voted.” And despite the lies of his campaign it did not take “courage” to oppose the war. Millions marched in opposition all over the country despite the fact that the CM blacked it out.

    The GE-TVs has been running like another opposition party against the Democratic frontrunner due to the power of Television have managed to destroy previous Democratic Frontrunners (Gore, Dean and Kerry).

    It was they who gave the Swiftboat Liars tens of billions in free advertising.

    And should Obama win, when McCain’s attack dogs (Like Romney and the Current PR guy of McCain who will go underground in a 527 so McCain doesn’t look bad) THE CMs will give these attack dogs lots and lots of free air time against Obama.

    Only this time they will not need to lie. They are likely to use the very things Obama said about himself in his book. There is currently some guy going around who is willing to (under oath) say worse and more current things about him.

    So perhaps George can get ready to help with that.

    I have seen what the Republicans have done to our institutions of State, and cried to hear Hillary speak before the organization that she cofounded the Constitution Society.

    But the audacity Obama has had to equate Hillary with Bush, or with any of the catasrphies that have been going on in the last 7 years.

    Few people know that when Bill was about to run, Republicans warned him that they will be able to bump all the other Democrats off the race just by claiming that they are “too liberal” or “tax and spend liberals” But not with him.
    So that if he runs they will destroy him

    All of the things like Whitewater, Travel Gate, FBI Gate were phony.
    And Bill, Hillary and their aids left the White House bankrupt. They tried to destroy them because they were effective.

    It is an outrage for Obama to use Republican Talking Points about Hillary not passing the Healthcare bill. IT WAS THE REPUBLICAN PARTY AND THEIR CRONIES WHO STOPPED IT.

    Hillary was there when Bill Clinton ballance the budget LINE ITEM BY LINE ITEM.

    It was Hillary that the leaders of Northern Ireland sought out to thank for brining them together after decades of of violent division. And she did so much more behind the scenes in areas of Diplomacy and for Children NATIONALLY!

    Obama has a Situation Comedy view of a Chief Executive. Prefers the Bush and Reagan style, said that it is not the job of the President to manage the Beaurocracy. When it is the Executive Branch that runs our entire government.

    I have never seen anyone for whom I have had such a declining view of as Barak Obama. His voice is now 2 decibles lower than it was…tonight he complimented himself for his speeches.

    I have seen some of the most inspiring speekers on earth speek and Obama’s speeches are more divisive than inspiring. He avoids critisizing the Republicans, has even praised them. People who have trampled on our Constitution… while so many of his supporters as well as him trash Democrats and the Democratic Party.

    Someone recently said that the average waiter abroad is able to have a more intelligent conversation about politics than the average College Educated American. And apparently, at this point sexism is much deeper than racism in our country.

    I continue to pray that Hillary wins, and agree that her campaign should have been much more conscious of Framing. Believe me,
    I am tortured about it, as I was with Kerry’s miserable campaign.

    Unfortunately Kerry is so oblivious to GOOD FRAMING that he endorsed the Book of Republican Operative Frank Lunz (Who laughed at him on C-Span for it). His book which Obama has been been using and Edwards did too is called: “It’s Not What You Say But What People Hear” which would more ACCURATELY be framed as: “It’s What You Imply, And Who You Implicate With Lies.”

    Progressives do not need to Imlicate their own with lies, unless they are trying to move the eyes of the viewer away from reality.

  • Nick Lento
    February 22, 2008 - 5:03 am | Permalink

    Excellent discussion!

    I believe Obama is on track to winning the nomination; Nothing surprising with that prediction.

    Re Obama, I believe that much of the criticism of MinerSam and the praise of Laurie and others are ALL valid.

    Obama has the potential to do something neither Clinton nor McCain can do. He can lead people to make a direct connection with their own Consciences…that’s where deep inspiration/motivation comes from. It’s not just “words”.

    I can see 30 million new registered democratic voters, at least. And they’ll all be needed to beat back the electoral fraud that will be rampant.

    We’ll have to win by at least 15 million votes to take back the White House….that’s just the way it is. The Republicans and the money behind them are that dirty. And let’s not forget closet bgots who will say one thing to a pollster but do something else in the privacy of the voting booth.

    Obama will grow in office. He has the potential to do that. Obama also has the potential to be pushed by the grass roots of the Democratic party in ways that Clinton does not.

    She’s a wonderful Lady and she could have easily had this all sewn up by know but she has fallen prey to prideful hubris…and will likely pay the price.

    Bottom line: without a strong national grass roots progressive movement to take back the Democratic party, at all levels, from the establishment pols that now own it, it’s likely that Obama will fail to meet his potential, blow it and be a one term president.

    If on the other hand THE PEOPLE inspire a president Obama; then everything good becomes possible!

    All this stuff about Lakoff is only part right; the analysis comes after the reality of direct gut perception/action. You can’t learn this stuff by simply reading a book any more than you can learn to ride a bicycle that way.

    If I’m wrong and Clinton somehow steals it, or Obama messes up and gives it to her…I’ll work my tail off to put Hillary Clinton in the White House.

    A McCain presidency would be a complete disaster that our democracy might not survive.

    Let’s hang together, or we’ll all hang separately. (As old Ben Franklin sorta said ;-)

  • Linda Timbs
    February 22, 2008 - 9:47 am | Permalink

    When it is all said and done, and the republicans take it again, we once again have done it to ourselves, so many are so ready to make things right for the minority community, that we are going to give the republicans just exactly what they want, a black man they can play with and put away, I am not at all against Obama, I am against the fact he is being placed in a position to be beat. I live in this world and not one democrat that I know is going to vote for Obama, I am not talking about born again democrats I am talking life long democrats,the ones that vote come election time. Has no one noticed that most of these primaries Obama is winning seems to be where the republicans and independants can come in and vote, of course they call them “NEW VOTERS” why won’t the media and pundits see that we are being set up at every turn, hmmm…..let’s see we go in, vote for a black democrat in a primary, we don’t have to do that come general election time, so guess who wins???? NOT A DEMOCRAT. Then all of the media and pundits will start with the “if they couldn’t do it this time,” like they love to do. All the while they are helping to perpetuate this defeat. Because that is news.
    At what point do we quit being led by a Rove type brain, we think Bush is easily led, come on folks why can’t Democrats see what is being done here. We will finally have a black nominee, but we will not have a black president, right or wrong I am not saying Obama is not qualified, just not this time, once they defeat him, the best new democrat, young democrat, qualitied black man will be old news, and will never be able to run again, what is that called, OH yeah, two birds with one stone. Now does that sound like something the republicans would do???? I am just amazed at how easily this is being done, yet no one seems to notice. I hope I am wrong, but I am not, I hope I can say that we got the one we wanted, but we won’t. John Edwards was the one we needed, but he was defeated from the start, the media decided he wasn’t news, Hillary would have been news as the first woman, but oh my! we have a new kid, Obama and he is really news, he is the first (viable)black man to run. So this is the way this is played, I am completely disgusted by my party. I would like to say I am disgusted by the media, but they are pure entertainment, so that is what they do, they have just become the sitcom of journalism. Nothing matters except how high are the ratings, how much money are we making, that is their job, as a voting public it is our responsibility to see past all of this, We never learn, we always play the game and lose, so I guess we get what we deserve. But I for one don’t deserve what we are getting, I am not being led, I know what is going on, and I guess I just have to say it.

  • dave from queens
    February 22, 2008 - 2:58 pm | Permalink

    The VALUES of progressives are the values of 75-80 percent of Americans.

    The “VALUES” of conservatives represent somewhere in the neighborhood of 20-25% of Americans.

    YOu have to connect with people on the THEMATIC, NARRATIVE, and EMOTIONAL level first. If you do that, they’ll listen to your wonkish policy ideas.

  • Vman
    February 23, 2008 - 3:41 pm | Permalink

    “Without food a man can last 30 days,
    without water 3 days, and without hope…even less time than that”
    Lewis Mumford

  • War Is Not Pro-Life
    February 24, 2008 - 7:40 am | Permalink

    If you want to see a comparative list of Obama’s legislative contributions vs. Hillary’s, I suggest you read this by “Grassroots Mom”:

  • War Is Not Pro-Life
    February 24, 2008 - 7:42 am | Permalink

    One more thing, Obama beats McCain in most head-to-head polls. Hillary would energize the Reps to vote for McCain. Obama actually energizes some Reps to vote for HIM.

  • Adrienne4Dean
    February 25, 2008 - 6:06 am | Permalink

    Of course head-to-head match-ups polled more than 8 months out and before both nominees are confirmed are entirely meaningless. And despite propaganda to the contrary, there are Republicans who actually support Hillary. I know some personally.


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