Thursday, August 19, 2010

BRAINTENANCE: Fun With Metaphors.

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Braintenance: Fun With Metaphors.
Dear Fellow Brain Wrinklers:

Metaphors are excellent tools for clarifying concepts. They utilize easily visualizable examples to "bring an idea" to life.

Good communication often requires the use of metaphors to reduce complex or cumbersome ideas (usually ideas that would take a great deal of time to clarify without the aid of visual examples that most people can relate to easily and comfortably).

US President Obama, whether or not you like or dislike him, has been slinging metaphors about for some time now. I would venture to say that Mr. Obama is as good with metaphors as Former President George W. (dubbya) Bush was with malaprops --- my favorite example is, "This is not rocket surgery, people!"

The following example comes to us courtesy of Yahoo! News.
SEATTLE — It started out simple enough. There was a car (the economy). And a ditch (the recession). Republicans had been driving the car (were in power) for eight years. It went into the ditch. And now that Democrats have dug the car out (won power and passed a bunch of economic recovery policies), the Republicans want back the keys (power).

The first time President Barack Obama used the metaphor at a Democratic fundraiser in April, he spent exactly four sentences on it: “And yet, after driving our economy into the ditch, they decided to stand on the side of the road and watch us while we pulled it out of the ditch,” Obama said at the Los Angeles event for Sen. Barbara Boxer of California. “They asked, ‘Why haven't you pulled it out fast enough?’ ‘I noticed there's, like, a little scratch there in the fender. Why didn't you do something about that?’” (See: White House searches for a villain)

It has since become the Mr. Potato Head of campaign stump speech metaphors.

The president keeps expanding on it. This week, as he repeated it at fundraisers across the country, it continued to balloon into several paragraphs and with bells and whistles tacked on in all directions.

Obama changes features around. He introduces new characters. He adds new props. The other day he decided Republicans were sipping Slurpees as they watched Democrats dig out the car. (Incidentally, Obama is the only president to ever use the word “Slurpee” in a speech, according to the archives of The American Presidency Project). (See: Mosque debate strains tea party, GOP)

There’s been a lot of mud in the ditch. It’s been all over Democrats as they push and shove, sometimes with their shoulders. In some speeches Obama has the Democrats wearing boots. Other times they’re wearing galoshes. He’s added bugs and sweat to the scene. There are sore backs and “huffing and puffing.” His family and political friends get cameos. And while he’s insistent that Republicans can’t drive, he’s offered for them to hop in the back seat.

“We put on our boots and walked into the ditch. It’s muddy and hot and dusty and bugs everywhere, and we’re pushing,” Obama said, having fun with the metaphor at a fundraiser Tuesday for Washington Sen. Patty Murray in Seattle. “And we’re slipping and sliding and sweating.” (See: Rossi to face Murray in November)

The scene of when Democrats have dug the car out of the ditch (stabilized the economy) differs from event to event. In one speech Obama has the car finally set on “the blacktop” when Republicans are wanting the keys back. But sometimes he puts the car “up on pavement.” Or, he’ll just simply place it “on level ground.”

Various people have interacted with the figurative car as Obama has shaped his favorite metaphor.

Last month he said Missouri Senate candidate Robin Carnahan’s opponent “had his hands on the wheel” when it went into the ditch because he had been part of Republican House leadership. (See: The latest news on midterm elections)

At a fundraiser for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada in July ,Obama accused Republicans of trying to get in the car and run over “me and Harry.”

“Harry Reid and I, we got mud on our shoes. We're — we've been pushing and shoving — car is just kind of getting out, almost on some pavement,” Obama said during remarks in Las Vegas. “Suddenly, they're all, ‘No, no, we want to pull into reverse.’ Run right over Harry and me. Get you back in the mud.” (See: Hot button: GOP candidates knock global warming)

Obama even introduced his 12-year-old daughter Malia to the ditch. It was during a Carnahan fundraiser that same day in Kansas City. “I don't have a teenager yet, but in a couple years, Malia is going to be able to drive, right?” Obama said. “That’s what happens with teenagers, right, they go get the learner's permit, they — now, if your teenager drives into a ditch, your car, bangs it up, you've got to pay a lot of money to get it out, what do you do? You take the keys away.”

This week the president brought some hypothetical passengers into the fold.
“If we give them the keys to this economy, they are going to drive it right back into the ditch,” Obama said of Republicans. “And riding shotgun will be the big banks and the insurance companies and the oil companies and every special interest under the sun.” (See: JetBlue quitter inspires RNC)

In many ways, Obama is continuing a long history of presidents overusing anecdotes and metaphors to drive home their points. Ronald Reagan was known as a great storyteller — and embellisher, said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. Abraham Lincoln — one of Obama’s favorite presidents — “was the greatest of all spinners of anecdotes,” Baker added.

“There ought to be a separate chapter in all American history books devoted to the rhetorical excesses of American presidents,” he said. “More recent presidents use these case studies of ‘ordinary Americans’ who have encountered some hardship or achieved something remarkable as examples of American pluck and determination.”

Obama may have claimed the ditch and the car by now, but he is not the first Democrat to use the metaphor.

Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was talking about the ditch months before Obama. In January, three months before Obama first spoke of “the ditch,” Van Hollen used the metaphor in an interview with Bloomberg Television.

“Why would you hand the keys to the car back to the same guys whose policies drove the economy into the ditch and then walked away from the scene of the accident?” Van Hollen said. “For the Republicans to say vote for us and bring back the guys who got us into this mess in the first place, I don’t think it’s a winner.”

Usually Obama reserves the ditch-car routine for campaign events only. But he used it once in a speech to the AFL-CIO’s executive council earlier this month.
It was there that he played up his favorite addendum to the metaphor: “Somebody pointed out to me that when you're in a car and you want to go forward, you put it in ‘D,’” he said.

“You want to go back in the ditch, you put it in ‘R.’ So I just want everybody to think about that.”

Just as Obama has cribbed from others — some credit Democratic strategist Paul Begala as the first one to use the ‘D’-drive and ‘R’-reverse bit — others are now cribbing from Obama. 
At a Chicago fundraiser earlier this month, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois took to the podium before Obama and robbed him of his metaphor. Quinn, whose delivery was much less animated than Obama’s, forced the president to back into his signature moment. (See: The Arena: Fair and balanced political giving?)

“I think Pat may have mentioned to you, they're trying to get you to forget that they drove the car into the ditch,” Obama said of Republicans. “And after we've pushed it out, now they're saying, ‘Give us the keys back.’ But we don't — we haven't forgotten, because we've got mud on our shoes, our back is sore from pushing that car out of the ditch. And I mean, if they want to get in the back seat, that's OK. But we're not going to put them behind the wheel.”

For a moment during another fundraiser in Chicago that same day, the metaphor even seemed to become too much for Obama.

“I also want to make a simple point — not to belabor this analogy,” he said, “but when you want to go forward, what do you put the car in?
And this time the audience got involved. "D!" the crowd shouted. “D,” Obama replied. (See: GOP's 'really inspiring,' Obama jokes)

With his rhetorical Christmas tree now festooned with flies, bugs, Slurpees, backaches, back-seat drivers, car accidents, sweat, dust and galoshes, who knows how Obama’s ditch will grow from now until November?

But there’s one question that will remain unanswered for another three months: Who gets the car? ####

Douglas Castle

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