Researchers have shown that political issues, ideas, and events are not organized as individual occurrences, but as “interpretive packages,” popularly referred to as frames. By organizing political information into issue frames, individuals are more easily able to form opinions about otherwise complicated policy issues from health care reform to climate change.
In today’s Politico, John Harris suggests that there are seven stories – or frames – about President Obama that have become “serious threats” to the president. What’s more, they have the potential to “gain enough currency to become the dominant frame through which people interpret the president’s actions and motives.”
Among these problematic frames is the perception that “He thinks he’s playing with Monopoly money:”
Along the way, however, it is clear Obama underestimated the political consequences that flow from the perception that he is a profligate spender. He also misjudged the anger in middle America about bailouts with weak and sporadic public explanations of why he believed they were necessary.
Another frame that runs the risk of greatly damaging his presidency is the idea that “He sees America as another pleasant country on the U.N. roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe.”
That line belonged to George H.W. Bush, excoriating Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988. But it highlights a continuing reality: In presidential politics the safe ground has always been to be an American exceptionalist.
Politicians of both parties have embraced the idea that this country – because of its power and/or the hand of Providence – should be a singular force in the world. It would be hugely unwelcome for Obama if the perception took root that he is comfortable with a relative decline in U.S. influence or position in the world.
On this score, the reviews of Obama’s recent Asia trip were harsh.
His peculiar bow to the emperor of Japan was symbolic. But his lots-of-velvet, not-much-iron approach to China had substantive implications.
On the left, the budding storyline is that Obama has retreated from human rights in the name of cynical realism. On the right, it is that he is more interested in being President of the World than President of the United States, a critique that will be heard more in December as he stops in Oslo to pick up his Nobel Prize and then in Copenhagen for an international summit on curbing greenhouse gases.
While it is widely accepted that the public generally understands political issues by the way elites frame or present these ideas, there are limitations to framing. The public is not simply puppets that can be freely and completely manipulated. But if president Obama and the White House don’t forcefully, consistently and believably challenge these storylines, it’s likely the frames Harris lays out will dominate the public’s view of the president. And, in my opinion, it’s about time.