George Lakoff deciphers “the Obama code”

February 25, 2009 | By | 4 Replies More

Barack Obama has quite a knack for addressing deep themes with his surface eloquence. What are those deep themes? Linguist George Lakoff has taken the time to set them out in a recent Huffpo article, and I think he’s thought it through impressively. Lakoff’s article is well worth a slow read.  What is Obama really about?

Behind the Obama Code are seven crucial intellectual moves that I believe are historically, practically, and cognitively appropriate, as well as politically astute. They are not all obvious, and jointly they may seem mysterious. That is why it is worth sorting them out one-by-one.

Note that for Lakoff (and Obama), “progressive values” (#2) are the natural result of genuine and uncorrupted empathy:

Those empathy-based moral values are the opposite of the conservative focus on individual responsibility without social responsibility. They make it intolerable to tolerate a president who is The Decider–who gets to decide without caring about or listening to anybody. Empathy-based values are opposed to the pure self-interest of a laissez-faire “free market,” which assumes that greed is good and that seeking self-interest will magically maximize everyone’s interests. They oppose a purely self-interested view of America in foreign policy. Obama’s foreign policy is empathy-based, concerned with people as well as states–with poverty, education, disease, water, the rights of women and children, ethnic cleansing, and so on around the world.

Here are Lakoff’s seven insights into the ideas that drive Obama’s spoken words:

1. Values Over Programs

2. Progressive Values are American Values

3. Biconceptualism and the New Bipartisanship

4. Protection and Empowerment

5. Morality and Economics Fit Together

6. Systemic Causation and Systemic Risk

7. Contested Concepts and Patriotic Language


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Category: Civil Rights, Communication, Good and Evil, Politics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. I a big Obama supporter but even I get a little queasy about halfway through reading that list. Could Pres O really be that good?? It's almost like Lakoff sees a little halo above his head. The article seemed "fawning" to me.

  2. Zoevinly says:

    Here is a collection of reactions to Obamanomics on The Opinionator:

    Personally, I think that legal services for the poor should be released from the 1996 restrictions that prevent poverty lawyers from funding their own work by accepting attorneys' fees when they win cases for their clients living at the poverty level. By uncaging free legal services providers, Obama could eventually see progress happen organically and claim credit for systemic change, while fulfilling ALL SEVEN of his purported values.

    For more information about the devastating LSC restrictions passed in 1996, see:


  3. Zoevinly says:

    Another clue into the unraveling meaning of Obamanomics is the President's decision to name Ron Bloom senior advisor to the Treasury Department on the auto industry crisis.

    At a time when the steel industry is hemorrhaging further (if that's possible) and laying off ever more workers in the St. Louis Metropolitan area, this pro-union expert on autoworkers' retirement health benefits has broad experience negotiating between labor unions and the financial sector.

    The former Wall Street investment banker and vice president of Lazard Freres & Company brandishes a Harvard M.B.A at a time when critics of charge that by employing too many lawyers and not enough finance experts, the SEC allowed the market to implode.

    Of Mr. Bloom, the president of U.S. Steelworkers says, "Ron has been a problem solver. He has worked on 50 bankruptcies over the last 20 years…we want to save the auto industry in America — and that’s what Ron is going to help them do."


  4. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I recently watched the documentary <a>"The Corporation" and found that it sheds much light on the our current economic problems.

    Many conservatives I know are well endoctrinated by the corporate interests and honestly believe that Obama has a hidden agenda to turn America in to a copy of the former Soviet Union. The problem seems to be that too few people understand economics and put their faith in the politicians and pundits who are also clueless.

    I really hope that Obama can get a turnaround going, because once the novelty of his presidency wears off, it is going to get rough, and the free-market profiteers take a no-holds-barred attitude when their powerbase is at stake.

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