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Lakoff writes: "There are enough people guessing what the president will do. This is about what he almost certainly won't do, but what I would like him to do."

President Barack Obama. (photo: Charles Dharapak/AP)
President Barack Obama. (photo: Charles Dharapak/AP)

SOTU 2014: The Cognitive Power of the President

By George Lakoff, Reader Supported News

27 January 14


here are enough people guessing what the president will do. This is about what he almost certainly won't do, but what I would like him to do.

The president has material power without the Congress, and personally, I would like to see him use it. He could issue an executive order for the government to grant contracts only to companies that pay their workers above some higher minimum wage. Or he could reject the XL pipeline on two national security grounds: its contribution to global warming and the dangers of leaks, explosions; and he could stop the virtual pipeline of dangerous tar sands and fracked oil shipments by train and waterway by insisting immediately on safe puncture-proof tanks. He could direct federal agencies to monitor and control dangerous chemical use and storage to prevent future versions of the Great West Virginia Water Disaster. I would love to see him act in dozens, if not hundreds, of areas for the public good, and give the moral grounds in the SOTU.

Beyond material power, the president has even greater power -- cognitive power -- and he hasn't used it much. Cognitive power is the power to put important ideas in people's minds by shaping public discourse. He has the unique power to change how America thinks simply by discussing crucial ideas over and over.

American democracy is based on empathy -- citizens caring about other citizens and working through their government to provide public resources for all, making both decent lives and flourishing markets possible. He used to speak of empathy as "the most important thing my mother taught me." But he was misinterpreted by conservatives and dropped this most central idea. He started talking, as Elisabeth Warren has so eloquently, about the crucial nature of public resources, but he messed up once ("You didn't build it") and stopped. He needs to take up that theme, get it right, and repeat it in every speech.

We know he's going to talk about economic inequality, as he should. He will probably mention worker salaries, which haven't risen in 30 years. But he needs to state a simple truth: Workers are Profit Creators! Corporate "productivity" -- the profit-per-worker -- has risen, but the profit creators haven't been getting a fair share of the profits.

One of the reasons for low salaries is that out-of-work workers can't bargain for fair wages as individuals. The absence, or weakening, of unions leads to Wage Slavery: take what you are offered or someone else will. The president needs to talk about Wage Slavery and how unions offer freedom from wage slavery. This is a crucial idea missing from public discourse, especially in states where conservatives are trying to legislate wage slavery via so-called "Right to work laws," which are actually exploitation laws. The president should be talking regularly about how unions contribute to freedom -- and getting the unions themselves to talk about it. If the idea isn't mentioned, it won't enter the public mind.

Next, pensions. Pensions are delayed payments for work already done. Say it, Mr. President. When pensions are cut, the wages already earned by workers are being stolen. Pension funds are often taken by companies and local governments and spent on other things. That is theft. There needs to be transparency -- public reporting yearly -- on what is being done with pension funds. The president could issue and executive order that any company, state, or municipality receiving money from the government must adopt the transparency principle for pension funds.

The president has occasionally used the idea of investment where conservatives talk of "spending." Drop "spending," Mr. President. When you spend money, as when you buy a product, the money is gone. But when you invest, the money is still there. Paying for early childhood education is a wise major investment in the brains of our children. Remember that by the time a child is five or six years old, half of his or her neural connections have died off -- the half least used. A child's brain is shaped and developed in those important pre-K years. Funding serious pre-K is one of the most important investments out country could make. The investment isn't gone. It is there in the child. Talk about brain shaping during pre-K, Mr. President. Every one in the country should know about it.

Perhaps the most important cognitive power of the president concerns the global extreme climate crisis. There are important ideas that need to be in public discourse. First, nature is inside of us, not just outside, as the world "environment" suggests. We breathe air, drink water, and eat food. Pollutants and pesticides are in us, not somewhere else. They cause cancer and other illnesses. In a drought, as in California right now, you need water, clean water, to drink and raise food. IN a major hurricane, water is can be deadly and devastating. Nature is in and around us, and supports all life. Don't destroy it, poison it, or turn it into a destroyer.

Coal, oil, and natural gas are immoral fuels, dirty fuels. Say it. Our planet, the only one we have -- nature itself -- is being sacrificed for short-term private profit. Yet, our government is negotiating a trade agreement that could outlaw all environmental laws, since it lets foreign nations sue when state or local environmental laws cut the corporate profits of foreign-owned corporations. It would be devastating to democracy, politically, since it gives up the sovereignty of our own people over their own lives. Don't give in and repeatedly tell us why you are you won't fast-track that treaty.

You can't drink oil! Protect our water supplies from fracking, which both uses a huge amount of water per well, puts vast amounts of poison in that water, endangering water supplies. You can't drink oil. Say it, Mr. President.

Species Are Us! We are part of the continuum of life with all species. Bees matter. Don't let them die off. Songbirds matter. Frogs matter. Salmon matter.

Invite to the SOTU 10 prominent pro-football players who have gotten lifelong brain damage from concussions received in football. Have them stand up in the balcony.

Finally, read labels out loud, Mr. President. Harmful chemicals are not just stored near West Virginia rivers. They are in our food, our cosmetics, and our toiletries. Use the Good Guide App in your SOTU and have Dara O'Rourke stand up and take a bow for inventing it. Introduce to the American people the idea of ENDOCRINE DISRUPTORS, chemicals that affect hormones. Read the Environmental Working Groups list of the dirty dozen, the 12 most dangerous, and tell everyone where they show up in your refrigerator, larder and medicine cabinet. Make sure Endocrine Disruptors are labeled as such, with a brief note pointing out that they affect hormones. Contribute to the health of our military and their families by an executive order keeping major endocrine disruptors off the shelves of PX's and military hospitals. The cognitive and material powers can sometimes work hand-in-hand.

Cognitive powers may seem small, but used over time they can have major effects.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News. your social media marketing partner


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+63 # fredboy 2014-01-27 14:26
I wish the President would do something few Presidents, if any, have done: I wish he would remind us that all elected officials are elected to do good and help others. That is the single, magnificent truth that can unite us all.

I wish he would remind us that people who serve only private interests, and those who make careers from fomenting discord and division, often cloud this truth.

This single, profound notion can wake up many now serving in public office. And attract good people to serve.

Again, I wish he would remind all of us that every elected official is entrusted with power to do good and help others. And our nation. And the world.
+19 # wantrealdemocracy 2014-01-27 17:22
Maybe we can all agree to this as a single magnificent truth---but it does not ring true to our 'Honored Members of Congress'. These corrupt creatures, with their pockets full of corporate 'donations', are working to help those corporations to get even more powerful by giving them the power to nullify any laws or regulations in any city, state or nation that might cut their expected profits. Obama is backing the dreaded Trans Pacific Partnership Act which is N,A.F.T.A. on steroids. This is their version of the New World Order of total corporate control of the whole world. Better let your 'representative ' that if they vote for the T.P.P. you will be very angry. It might be time for a national rebellion to change this rotten government. Maybe we can get people elected who will do good and help others.
+6 # Eldon J. Bloedorn 2014-01-27 21:48
To: fredboy. Good post. I hope the Pres. has the guts to say, "when someone tells me he, she is a Republican, that is an extension of his, her morality." Someone needs to tell it like it really is. And those people who just for a moment, when the truth hits them, they quickly look down, glance at the floor, giving a "floor salute," they will know who they are and we will know.
+2 # Holy Cow 2014-01-28 06:40
Well said, fredboy. Time we sheeple evolve, and get out of 'it's all about me and what pleasures me' m.o..

Our attempt at democracy has disappeared, including govt., via reg. agencies, regs., and actual enforcement of same, insuring safety of each and every citizen in our POLICE STATE AIN'T GREAT, and safety of Mother Earth in this, our BUSHWHACKED and KOCHSUCKED era.

Wake up, folks, you whose vote may or may not be counted and/or tallied honestly. Time to take off the blinders and get active. Lots and lots we've gotta do to...

+31 # reiverpacific 2014-01-27 14:44
"American democracy is based on empathy -"(quote).
I wish that people -including Mr Lackoff RSN, would QUIT using the term "American Democrcay"! -'b'aint no such thing.
I know it's childish but a more apt -and honest- theme would be "I'm a little Plutocrat colored blue, see all the ways that I can screw you"!
As for the State of the Union address, I quit listening to or even worse, watching it a long time ago, after Reagan's "B" movie acted rhetoric, then finally in Dimwit's first year in stolen office.
I found it actually painful to watch all these representatives and speakers standing and applauding at various intervals, like trained circus seals waiting for their morsel of fish after a clever trick, in the scripted litany of insincerity it has become.
Sorry but I'm just that WEE bit cynical.
I'd rather, if I wanted some entertainment value from a group of politicians, watch "Prime Minister's Question Time". -At least they get to be forthright, blunt -sometimes brutal, sometimes funny, have to be quick on their feet with an answer and retain a certain amount of mob-rule-value in their shouted derision.
I always wanted to see how many seconds Dimwits/Cheney would ha' lasted in that maelstrom of televised punch-counter -punch exchange of political rugby.
+29 # thekidde 2014-01-27 14:59
If only. Why is it, election cycle after election cycle, we the people get poseurs, liars, idiots (GWB comes to mind) to run for president and then we get a guy who seems to be one us philosophically , and he turns out to be a shill for the status quo?
+7 # karenvista 2014-01-27 16:45
Quoting thekidde:
If only. Why is it, election cycle after election cycle, we the people get poseurs, liars, idiots (GWB comes to mind) to run for president and then we get a guy who seems to be one us philosophically, and he turns out to be a shill for the status quo?

+20 # wantrealdemocracy 2014-01-27 17:29
Yes, JFK tried to act in the interests of the people when he said NO to the war in VietNam and NO to the continuation of the Federal Reserve. Nov. 22, 1963 was the date of our coup de tat. Our democracy died on that day. 50 years later we still are not told the truth of the events of that day. Nor are we about to hear the truth of 9/11. The United States is an Empire and it is a corpacracy. We are ruled by the corporations which seek greater profits at the expense of all life on earth. We must over throw the current government of the United States, for our sake and for our children's sake---for the sake of the continuation of life on earth. Time is running out!
-38 # Penn 2014-01-27 19:45
The only coupe' in American history was one Democrat (Johnson) killing another Democrat (Kennedy). You libs must be so proud of your left wing heritage.
+10 # Eldon J. Bloedorn 2014-01-27 22:28
Here comes Penn again. When Penn says "I'm a Republican," he is saying, "that is an extension of my morality." What else can he say?
+1 # Kathymoi 2014-01-30 18:26
JFK was the last elected president, I've heard. Since him, all the presidents have been selected by the richest people who control the two major political parties with their financial contributions (bribes) or threat not to contribute. The biggest donors to both parties select the candidates.
+10 # MendoChuck 2014-01-27 15:41
The above messages state it well enough that I just need to say, "Right on!"

Upward and Onward Through The Fog!
-16 # Penn 2014-01-27 19:42
Yeah, you're fogged up.
-15 # Jingze 2014-01-27 17:04
The media has declared tat whatever Obama says will be a failure. as usual. They have already decided he is the worst president since Washington. They are already lauding the triumph of the republicans in November. It's over. Let's go have a pizza and a beer or two.
-27 # Penn 2014-01-27 19:36
Obama is a failure. He was always going to be since he had NO experience or skill in leading anything. You believe he is a failure because he is black. I know he is a failure because he is totally incompetent and will never blame any black man for that.
+14 # Eldon J. Bloedorn 2014-01-27 22:36
Here comes Penn again. A perpetual negative loser. Nature gave him a raw deal. He actually can be a positive inspiration to the rest of us. Why? He is a leader in mistakes. He can always set a bad example to the rest of us. Don't be like him.

Obama was a community organizer after a brilliant career as a law student. A Republican will say, "where is the money in that! Loser!"
0 # LAellie33 2014-01-29 18:31
Way past time to turn off your hateful radio station and lying Fox & Freaks channel -- there's a much better life out there.
+19 # MidwesTom 2014-01-27 17:23
I wish he would address the missing 28 pages in the 9/11 report. I also hope he announces our total withdrawal from Afghanistan, and that we are not going to get involved in Syria.
0 # Sweet Pea 2014-01-28 12:31
I like the old sayng-"If Wishes Were Horses-beggars would ride". We can wish all we want-but this world is controlled by the wealthy. The best we can hope for is the ability to vote for the lesser of two evils.We are simply the puppets-and Wars increase the wealth of the people who are pulling the strings.
+1 # Kathymoi 2014-01-30 18:30
The best we can hope for is the will to select our own candidates, for president, senator, congressmen, governors of our states, state legislators, and for every office of government, local, state and federal. Accepting the big money big party candidates will only get us candidates owned by big money and the big parties they control with their big money. ----We have to create our own alternative.
-2 # Jingze 2014-01-27 19:25
The president is window dressing. He obviously has no power.
-38 # Penn 2014-01-27 19:42
Fracking is saving this country and there is absolutely NO proof of water contamination because of fracking, none. Those are the facts for fracking. Only a pathetic liar would make the claims of that liar, but we have found that most of those liars are funded by Middle East countries that want to keep selling us oil for energy. Solar and Wind is not viable whatsoever until they can produce more energy than they take to make (using natural gas and oil energy) and there is no financial benefit when the government (me and other taxpayers) cover 50% of the cost of the panels or windmills. The only ones making money are Obama's crones selling you their faulty products and you with lower energy costs since I am footing your bills from now on. Get a real job and pay for yourself. Get off my financial back and take care of yourself and your family.
+14 # Eldon J. Bloedorn 2014-01-28 00:03
Penn,I almost thought the oil and gas industry is paying you to post on this board. But, I don't think so. Why? You are making an ass out of yourself, OK?
+4 # CTPatriot 2014-01-28 11:06
Penn - so apparently you'd prefer that trillions of your tax dollars be used to subsidize the oil industry and to make war on foreign lands in order to control and protect access to that oil?

At least with tax payers collectively supporting the development of renewable energy like solar power, the money (and I suspect that 50% figure came out of your ass like everything else you've written in this thread) goes into something that is healthier for the environment and that does not depend on a finite resource.

It's a shame you have no respect for or understanding of the concept of society. Without the pooling of our financial resources through tax dollars, we would have no interstate highway system, no electrical grid, no safe drinking water, no protection from poisons in our foods. I could go on.
0 # Kathymoi 2014-01-30 18:31
gee you sound like a republican, Me for me and me only.
+3 # James Marcus 2014-01-27 22:40
You are Dreaming. He HAS used his Cognitive Power! Masterfully.
He is the Ultimate Pied Piper.
Your 'Dreaming' proves it.
+4 # Peter Attwood 2014-01-27 22:54
If only the Czar knew!

The Czar knows. Obama is advancing the agenda he wants to advance, on behalf of those he serves. It's not a matter of guts. It's what's important to him.

For five years he has been indistinguishab le from Bush, and some of you suckers still won't wise up and believe what Obama really says, which is what he actually does. He's great at sweet words, and then doing the opposite, doing what he really wants to do.

If this was 2009, OK, betrayal takes a while to get used to. But after 5 years, you need to get past the denial stage.
+2 # tigerlillie 2014-01-28 00:04
"American democracy is based on empathy."

How naive.
+9 # RMDC 2014-01-28 08:03
Tiger -- no, Lakoff is correct. the concept of democratic governments was innovated in the 18th century, sometimes called the Englightenment or Age of Sentiment. Read Rousseau. Empathy is what makes democracy work; you have to agree that others have the same rights in society that you do. Only Hobbes says that fear and jealousy make society. It is no accident that most people today cite Hobbes social contract theory but that is only because of the cynicism of today. Today a lot of people think society work because of force and fear. That is a theory of fascism, not democracy.
-2 # tonywicher 2014-01-28 14:29
I wish the President would be something other than a lying sack of sh*t, but it ain't gonna happen.
+1 # Kathymoi 2014-01-30 18:43
I've said it before and I've said it in comments to articles in RSN before.
The two major parties are both funded by the richest people. Both parties spend millions of dollars on a presidential campaign and they get those millions from rich people who donate the money, one way or another. The rich people will only donate their money to back a candidate they want. Sooo, the two major parties only give us candidates who are approved (and no doubt originally selectec) by the biggest donors to the party. "The party" is both parties, both the republican party and the democrat party depend on the donations of the very richest people who make the very biggest donations. ===This doesn't mean that we citizens have no other choices and that we have to vote for one of the candidates selected for us by the very very obscenely self-interested rich.---What it does mean is that we need to act as a citizenry, and we need to, as a citizens' group, select candidates for every office in government. In 2014, we need to select candidates for governor and congress positions. We need to organize now to select candidates to run for senate and the president in 2016. These should be people with no previous experience in government and people who are not in the employ of big banks, big lawfirms that serve big corporations, or in big multinational corporations. Ideally these candidates would be the kind of citizens who need representation in government. Think about it.

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