In a recent Los Angeles Times article, political reporter Doyle McManus argues that president Obama’s “tone” is changing and will be highlighted in his jobs speech. If true, this is clearly a turn away from the “reasonable” mode of communications the president has used for most of his term in office.
According to research from the cognitive and social sciences, tone is a critical element of frame composition. The general belief is that there are two types of tone – reasonable and rhetoric. When a communicator is in reasonable mode the conversation is inclusive and seeks understanding from the recipient of the message.
Rhetorical tone, on the other hand, is argumentative, dogmatic, and the communicator is most interested in defending their position. The role assigned to the message recipient is not predicated on engagement; rather they are seen as antagonistic.
President Obama’s reasonable tone was on display throughout the summer, for example, as he sought to compromise with Republicans on a wide range of economic issues; most notably, the debt ceiling bill. And has been the case for most of his administration, liberals and progressives have issued howling critiques of the reasonableness of his tone. “Fight back” they say. Defend the fort! Don’t compromise with the devil!
Now, according to McManus, the president is finally ratcheting up the partisanship of his tone. He has begun to stake out his territory and is throwing the down gauntlet. In a Labor Day speech the president said, “You say you’re the party of tax cuts? Well then, prove you’ll fight just as hard for tax cuts for middle-class families as you do for oil companies and the most affluent Americans. Show us what you got.” If this tone continues in tonight’s speech the president will make clear his strategy for the 2012 campaign: Stake out ground to the left of where he has been for most of his first term and dare the Republicans to be something more than the party of no.
The $60 million dollar question, of course, is will this strategy work? We know that the Republicans’ tone is rhetorical. They have managed to control the debate on the economy by hammering the simple message that the downturn has been caused by government overspending and overregulation. Now the President has adopted a rhetorical tone. The economic downturn is because the republicans have failed to look out for the little guy and the best interests of the country. In other words, will a negative plus a negative equal a positive for President Obama?
The plus side:
• It will energize his base – progressives, liberals, union members and the like will be thrilled to see the president go to his left (as would many members of his party)
• It will put the Republicans on the defensive. FrameWorks’ research shows that rhetorical tone produces an attack and defend dynamic.
• It will give him the opportunity to highlight his solutions stories. If anything has been MIA in the administration’s communications arsenal over the last three years has been an effective telling of the many success stories associated with administration policies
• By ratcheting up the partisanship of the debate the president’s strategy runs the risk of being eaten by the “government trap”. As FrameWorks’ research show, Americans have a very pejorative view of government – they see it as dysfunctional and inefficient.
• The solutions stories can be eaten by the rhetorical tone leading people to discount the Administration’s successes.
• This strategy may be trumped by the “crisis” frame trap; that is, the intransigence on both sides of the aisle will lead to delays, impasse, and inaction. This, in turn, will plunge the nation deeper into danger. And once the crisis frame is evoked, it crowds out plausible solutions and leads to public apathy and hopelessness.
So, would a strategic communications consultant tell the president to get partisan? Should the administration take a rhetorical tone? Will this help solve any of the social ills that confront the society?