June 25, 2010
The usual key to staying on top in the murky world of politics is to control the narrative. And, by all linguistic accounts, Barack Obama’s control of the oil spill narrative has slipped away.
In his best Churchill impression, he spoke about “the battle we’re waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens,” going on to vow that “we will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long as it takes.”
The president then talked about creating a battle plan as well as the need to develop energy independence and to “fight for the America we want for our children.”
In fact, Obama’s rhetoric around America’s biggest environmental disaster has intensified in recent weeks.
Accused of not being angry enough at the company that has still not managed to fully plug a gushing oil well, “No Drama” Obama, as he was once known, is using tougher language and framing the oil spill as an environmental 9/11.
He also uttered the now oft-quoted explanation of why he’s spending so much time talking to experts: so he can “know whose ass to kick.”
But in this unfolding drama, with a wavering protagonist, a motley crew of characters and a slick, unrelenting enemy, one is compelled to shout in frustration: “words, words, words!”
Therein lies the problem, says language analyst Paul Payack. Words alone mean nothing if they are not backed up by action and, as a result, Obama has lost control of what he wants to say.
“He who wins control of the narrative controls the story in terms of political capital,” says Payack. And at the moment, Obama isn’t doing so well, which could hurt his party in the November mid-term elections.
According to Payack, the most important storyline currently defining the president is “Obama as oil spill enabler.”
To arrive at that, Payack’s Global Language Monitor tracked the frequency of words and phrases on the internet — in the news media, blogosphere and social media outlets — to figure out the predominant, unfiltered story.
It tracked word combinations such as “Obama/slow response/delayed response,” “BP/slow response/delayed response,” “Obama in command/not in command,” and “BP in command/not in command.”
According to Payack’s measurement, the popular opinion is that Obama was slow to respond and is not in command, therefore “enabling” the perpetrators, BP.
What’s more, this view appears to have completely overshadowed “Obama as health-care reformer.”
Remember health-care reform? That is supposed to have been the president’s great achievement.
The passive voice
So how did Obama lose control of the story?
The prime-time speech solidified the “enabler” narrative, in part, Payack says, because the president spoke at an unexpectedly high 10th-grade reading level, with the highest level of what are called passive constructions measured in any major presidential address in this century.
The passive voice in politics, says Payack, tends to either deflect responsibility or obscure who is taking action.
But while the government has lost control of the oil spill narrative, it’s not like BP has gained it.
The company is so desperate to have some control, any control, of the storyline that it’s actually buying up language.
Well, not in so many words. But for a while there it was buying up sponsored links at the top of Google and Yahoo. So if you typed in oil spill, BP oil spill, or oil spill response into their search engines, up popped BP’s official page to tell you about “BP’s progress on the Gulf of Mexico’s response effort.”
The company said it wanted to show what it was doing to contain the oil spill. That’s clearly not working too well for them.
So if neither the government nor the company is controlling the narrative, who is?
“If you neglect to write your own narrative, somebody else will write it for you”, says Payack. And those others appear to be pundits, bloggers and journalists.
Obama’s prime-time address was billed as an “inflection point” (another oddly esoteric term for a very real disaster).
It was supposed to create a shift from the anxiety-provoking narrative of a slow response, to an uplifting narrative of hope and change and energy independence.
The American public, however, doesn’t seem to be buying it. A recent poll shows only 53 per cent of Americans believe Obama is a solid and effective leader, a seven-point drop since January.
Still, the president might yet wrestle back control in the next few months, in time for the mid-term elections. Because, sadly, this story is far from over.