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By Richard Kirsch, originally published on Next New Deal

Both the 2014 State of the Union and the Republican response emphasized the need for an opportunity society, but only the president called for collective action.

Midway through listening to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ Republican response to the State of the Union address last week, a colleague of mine e-mailed, “they got & used the economic narrative talking points to write this.” My friend was referring to the progressive economic narrative (PEN), developed to provide progressives with a powerful, clear story about the economy and the role of people, government, and business.

In fact, there are powerful similarities in the story of the American Dream that both Obama and Republicans express, particularly as Republicans increasingly see that they must speak to Americans who are being pushed out of the middle class and struggling to stay out of poverty. That convergence is not by itself bad. It is an opportunity to draw attention to the huge chasm that exists between the two narratives, a Republican story based solely on the individual and a Democratic one that sees the individual in relation to collective action.

Perhaps this is the line by McMorris Rodgers that triggered my colleague’s ire: “Last month, more Americans stopped looking for a job than found one. Too many people are falling further and further behind.” After all, one line from PEN is “Too many Americans can’t find a job and too many jobs pay wages that don’t support a family.”

It is not a surprise that Republicans have been embracing part of the progressive story—that the middle class is getting crushed—because that is how most Americans are feeling, and pollsters for both parties are emphasizing that politicians must speak to where people are now to have any credibility.

Please read below the fold for more on this story.

The similarities go beyond just relating to economic insecurity. Both Obama and McMorris Rodgers have the same vision of the American Dream, an opportunity society in which people are, as McMorris Rodgers said, “not defined by our limits, but by our potential.” Or, as the president put it, “our success should depend on … the strength of our work ethic and the scope of our dreams.”

The heroes in both stories are hardworking Americans. Obama: “the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility you get ahead.” McMorris Rodgers: “They taught me to work hard, help others, and always, always, dream for more.”

A job is how our hero achieves his or her dream. McMorris Rodgers says, “a job is so much more than a paycheck—it gives us purpose, dignity. …” The president asks that “we do more to make sure our economy honors the dignity of work. …”

The underlying value in both stories is opportunity. McMorris Rodgers anticipates that Obama will focus his speech on inequality and tries to cut him off at the rhetorical pass: “The president talks a lot about income inequality. But the real gap we face today is one of opportunity inequality.”

But Obama was not, in fact, giving a speech about inequality. He too was focused on opportunity, as Benjamin Landy bemoaned. “Instead of inequality, the President talked about ‘opportunity,’ a poll-tested alternative Obama deployed 14 times during the 65 minute speech. ‘Inequality’ was mentioned three times.”

Saying that “opportunity for all” is “what unites the people of this nation,” Obama declared, “Opportunity is who we are. And the defining project of our generation is to restore that promise.”

It is on the question of how we achieve the quest for opportunity for all that the president and McMorris Rodgers profoundly differ, where opposite visions of how we achieve the American Dream are projected. And remember that McMorris Rodgers’s speech is entirely a representation of Republican messaging.

According to McMorris Rodgers, you get there by yourself, with the help of your family. Her talk, as those of you who had the patience to listen through it will remember, was all about herself and her family: the work and savings ethics taught by her parents in a rural small town in Eastern Washington, her raising of her son born with Down syndrome.

And that, in her political narrative, is how we address the challenge facing the country, “one manufacturing job, nursing degree, and small business at a time.” Her talk barely bothers with policy directives, but those few that appear are based on the individual.

The most robust policy paragraph in her talk is, “We have plans to improve our education and training systems so you have the choice to determine where your kids go to school ... so college is affordable ... and skills training is modernized.” When it comes to health care, “Republicans believe health care choices should be yours, not government. [emphasis added]”

As far as how to get Americans those jobs, Republicans have “plans that focus on jobs first, without more spending, government bailouts, and red tape. … We have solutions to help you take home more of your pay—through lower taxes, cheaper energy costs, and affordable health care.”

The villain is unmistakable in her story: “Government that decides for you.”

But while the president’s heroes are individual hardworking Americans, he makes it clear that we build the pathway to opportunity for all through collective action. The word “community” appears 13 times in Obama’s speech; not once in McMorris Rodgers. The president uses “us” referring to the nation, 17 times; McMorris Rodgers, four times.

The substance of Obama’s policy solutions are replete with concerted actions, and the entire premise that we do something together, through our government, is the exact opposite of the Republican story of getting the government out of the way.

The stories he tells unite the individual and the community. For example, a student who, “thanks to the support of great teachers and an innovative tutoring program, he led a march of his classmates—through a crowd of cheering parents and neighbors—from their high school to the post office, where they mailed off their college applications.”

Summing it all up—the heroes, the quest, the role of individual and the community, Obama says, “It’s the spirit of citizenship, the recognition that through hard work and responsibility, we can pursue our individual dreams, but still come together as one American family to make sure the next generation can pursue its dreams as well.”

The narratives in President Obama and McMorris Rodgers’ responses are more than just a minor part of the evening’s political theater. They speak to the fundamental ideological divide in the nation and frame the political choices before the country now and over the coming decade. In the starkest terms, it is a contrast between “you are on your own” and “we are all in this together.” We want to tell our story in those terms, for when we do, progressives absolutely win that debate.  

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.


Images via Thinkstock

Originally posted to Daily Kos Economics on Mon Feb 03, 2014 at 01:08 PM PST.

Also republished by Political Language and Messaging and Daily Kos.

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Comment Preferences

  •  McMorris voices the Ayn Rand ideology... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    happymisanthropy, a2nite

    ...that has become part of the DNA of the GOP.  In the Ayn Rand dystopia that they propose, government has no role.  It's a you are on your own vision of the world which has never worked anywhere ever.  This ideology is as pernicious and dangerous as communism.

    All this doesn't mean that Obama thinking represents a new antithesis, specially when you take into account the corrupting influence of money in politics helped by skyrocketing inequality.  Let's just say that Obama represents the old synthesis (ok I've gone a bit Hegelian), I'm looking for a new anti-thesis and a new synthesis.

    Daily Kos an oasis of truth. Truth that leads to action.

    by Shockwave on Mon Feb 03, 2014 at 01:46:47 PM PST

  •  This was truly awesome, and I do believe you (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    wishingwell, offgrid, salmo

    are correct. I was talking with my friend the other day on our way back from the gym, and I said, somewhere, capitalism got in the way and forced both parents to start working to afford the house they wanted, forced us start thinking in terms of "I, me, myself" rather than the collective us. When neighbors knew neighbors, chatted, talked, everyone knew everyone in their community. We've lost that. We've lost that feeling that "we're all in this together, so let's do it right" in the name of the almighty dollar.

    Maybe we're swinging back to that and saying, "hey, aren't we all in this together? Then let's get it right". I really really hope we are.

    It is every person's obligation to put back into the world at least the equivalent of what they takes out of it. - Albert Einstein (edited for modern times to include everyone by me!)

    by LeftieIndie on Tue Feb 04, 2014 at 07:24:02 PM PST

  •  Very different paths... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    The GOP's ends in a cul-de-sac (though not in culling the sacks o.s.).
    Obama's path actually leads somewhere.

    I ride the wild horse .

    by BelgianBastard on Tue Feb 04, 2014 at 07:44:21 PM PST

  •  Dead Wrong, GOP Is About Terminating Path to (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    opportunity for most.

    Obama and GOP present two different visions.

    Neither of them present a path.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Tue Feb 04, 2014 at 07:53:08 PM PST

  •  Oh pulease. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Obama and the GOP present two very different paths to opportunity for all

    They are both very entertaining, but let's get real about "opportunity."

    “The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn't understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had.” ― Eric Schmidt

    by Pluto on Tue Feb 04, 2014 at 07:56:59 PM PST

  •  So far Obama has enabled millions of people the (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    opportunity to finally receive access to healthcare.

    I know that many are committed to the rhetorical suggestion that Obama hasn't done much--that seem to want to suggest that these millions of people really didn't receive access to healthcare, or women to contraceptive care, or that Obama didn't achieve increasing fuel efficiency standards in cars, or extending Pell Grant so that millions can get a college education, or reducing the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, or ending DADT or placing two women on the Supreme Court, saving the car industry and saving the economy from a second Great Depression....

    If he had only achieved the passing of the ACA during his eight years in office, this achievement alone would have cemented Barack Obama in history as responsible for greatly improving the station of the poor and middle class in this nation. No wonder Republicans desperately continue to try and repeal it,  tough Luck! The horse has already leaped  through the gate.

    They will never be able to take away the benefits secured by the ACA from all these aforementioned millions of people. Yes, as Joe Biden commented, this was a BFD!  

  •  flag waving (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    The only thing missing in Rodgers' response was holding a flag in her hand and wave it after every talking point. about 47% of voters will lap it up. exceptionalism thing.

  •  I was profoundly shocked (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    billybam, salmo, LeftieIndie, bunsk, bartcopfan

    by McMorris Rodger's life story.  Having a first child with Down's Syndrome, she went ahead and had two more children.  While this was her decision to make, I couldn't help think about women who might find it a great hardship to have a disabled child...either because of the stress it places on a family or the financial burden that raising and caring for such a child would incur.

    She said that "Republicans believe that healthcare choices should be yours, not government."...except when it comes to women's right to choose whether or not to have a disabled child.  In fact, if a pregnant woman dies, crazycons will force the family to keep the corpse on life support to bring the disabled child to term...and make them foot the bill for the medical costs and expense of taking care of the child for the rest of it's life.  

    I became sexually fertile in the mid-sixties and was able to go to Planned Parenthood and get free contraceptives and family planning advice...and I took it as a "given" that this was my right.  I would hope that any woman of childbearing age today would also consider this as her right...and not allow any lunatic-fringe political party to deprive her of it.

    •  Oh, don't worry--SHE won't be deprived. (0+ / 0-)
      I would hope that any woman of childbearing age today would also consider this as her right...and not allow any lunatic-fringe political party to deprive her of it.
      She's got money, don'tcha know.

      "Push the button, Max!" Jack Lemmon as Professor Fate, The Great Race

      by bartcopfan on Wed Feb 05, 2014 at 10:22:51 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I don't know if money has anything to do with it.. (0+ / 0-)

        since the crazycon base is pretty ignorant and dirt-poor, yet they still vote for candidates who are not only anti-abortion, but also anti-contraceptive.  It has to be that their religion is much more important to them than their earthly welfare or even their country.

        •  Agreed, I'm just saying the forced-birth stuff (0+ / 0-)
          It has to be that their religion is much more important to them than their earthly welfare or even their country.
          you and I both abhor won't affect her; she has the money to go to NYC, or CA, or Sweden (as I'm just old enough to remember, pre-Roe) if/when she or someone she cares about wants to access the care she denies others.

          The rubes in the pews are convinced that the millionaires and billionaires, including those in their very own pulpits, give a crap about this.  They (the millionaires and billionaires) are just using the rubes as voters and campaign workers to elect people to cut the millionaires' and billionaires' taxes.

          [So--though you didn't ask for it--that's my back-of-the-envelope explanation of the modern Republican't Party.]

          "Push the button, Max!" Jack Lemmon as Professor Fate, The Great Race

          by bartcopfan on Wed Feb 05, 2014 at 04:41:37 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  I agree with you... (0+ / 0-)

            Since Reagan, the "godfather" of neoconservatism, got elected, the greedy rich got a foot in the door.  You don't think that moron thought up "trickle down" economics all by himself.  

            Neocons "primaried out" all of the moderates in the GOP over the next three decades and cultivated the crazycons to expand their base...with campaign donations from big corporations and banks...but since 2010, the crazycons have turned on the neocons and are primarying them out of the party.  It's really hilarious to watch them get hoist with their own petard!

            With the party's descent into insanity, one wonders how long the greedy rich will be throwing good money after bad.  Two losses by their handpicked candidates, McCain and Robmey, and no prospects of anyone viable in 2016 has got to have them pretty discouraged.

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