Moral Leadership: What Obama Has to Show Tomorrow In the Debate Performance, and for Real

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By George Lakoff

As Nate Silver, NY Times polling expert put it, “Instant polls conducted after the debate are suggestive of something between a tie and a modest win for Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.”

Biden held his own and maybe a bit more. That was important. But President Obama has to do a lot better than that. He has to go beyond the policy wonk to be a moral leader once more. Here’s how Jennifer Granholm put it on her Current TV show video.

On the whole, the public and especially the undecided voters don’t keep track of policy details and which numbers are right. The worst thing the president can do is to just compare details of policy. That just elevates Romney to the status of an equal, who can come back with lies that will sound just as good if not better to most of the undecided.

The TV debates are not primarily about policy details and the numbers in themselves. As Ronald Reagan showed, the debates are about choosing a moral leader. And we do this through a performance.

Reagan didn’t debate policy details and numbers. Instead he did the following:

  • Stated his values.
  • Connected with the viewers by projecting empathy.
  • Communicated clearly.
  • Appeared authentic, appeared to be saying what he believed.
  • Was positive and upbeat.

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What to Watch for in the Presidential Debates

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By George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling

I’ve been applying cognitive linguistics and neuroscience to politics in six books over the past two decades. The ideas in those books were on display in many of the speeches at the Democratic National Convention. Look for them in the debates. They include:

  • All politics is based on moral values, with strict conservatives and progressives having different moral values.
  • There are also morally complex voters — moderates, independents, swing voters — who are progressive on some issues and conservative on others.
  • All issues are conceptually “framed” — that is, they have a mental structure that fits one’s moral system.
  • Facts matter, but only when they clearly fit one’s morally-based frames. Facts and figures, when used, should create a moral point in a memorable way. And if the facts don’t fit your frames, the frames stay and the facts are ignored or ridiculed.
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