Metaphors of the Union: Language in the State of the Union Address

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

To investigate the language used to describe some of the key issues brought up by President Obama in his 2014 State of the Union Address and by Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers in her response, we spoke with Oberlin College Psychology Professor Paul Thibodeau, whose research focuses on metaphors and how language can impact the way people conceptualize and solve problems. In our conversation we discuss the language surrounding inequality, the education and immigration systems, as well as the ubiquity and subtlety of metaphors.


Evan Nesterak: In his speech President Obama stated “Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled.” Can you unpack this seemingly simple language? What metaphors are at work here?

Paul Thibodeau: I thought there were a few interesting things going on when he said that. When he talked about how inequality is deepening it really seemed to evoke the idea that this trend is becoming entrenched in a way–the deeper a foundation is built the more stable it is. It seems like he’s suggesting we’re in the process of setting up a system where we’re not going to be able to rebound; [that] we’re fundamentally changing the way that the United States works. It seems like that was the kind of idea he was going for when he was talking about the inequality problem deepening. At least that’s one way to interpret that metaphor.

Another thing that was really interesting about that section of his speech was his use of a vertical inequality metaphor. He used it a few times [and] he was pretty consistent. He was talking about upward mobility. He talked about a ladder joining the middle class and joining the upper class and making sure the ladder is there. That really contrasted from the Republican Response, which focused much more on a horizontal metaphor of for inequality. The Republican Response talked about an inequality gap and trying to close that gap.

It seems like he’s suggesting we’re in the process of setting up a system where we’re not going to be able to rebound; [that] we’re fundamentally changing the way that the United States works.

The difference between a horizontal metaphor and a vertical metaphor is kind of subtle, but implicitly, vertical obstacles can be harder to overcome. Unless you have some tool, it can pretty difficult to climb upward–maybe the government needs to provide more support for people who wish to move up. Whereas a gap metaphor–that’s horizontal–is a little bit more neutral. So that was something I found interesting, that contrast.

EN: In the Republican Response, Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers spoke about opportunity inequality as opposed to income inequality. Can you talk about how the same gap metaphor is being used in two different ways?

PT: The Democrats want to highlight income inequality in and of itself as a problem, as an issue that needs to be dealt with. Whereas Republicans, I don’t think, see income inequality, in and of itself, as a big problem. In our lab we’re collecting some data and it seems like people in general are ok with the idea that there is income inequality. People are very aspirational. Everybody wants to feel like they can join that group of “haves.” So Republicans really want to highlight that aspirational attitude that a lot of people have, and they want to keep that idea alive without necessarily disparaging the income inequality that exists. Whereas I think the Democrats want to say income inequality, in and of itself, really is a problem, even if there is also an opportunity gap.

EN: The metaphor of an income inequality gap has been used quite often. Can you think of a metaphor that portrays the idea of income inequality differently and how that might highlight different aspects of the problem?

PT: The gap metaphor in general is pretty neutral in terms of its valence. It’s basically an objective way of describing an issue. It doesn’t have any necessarily positive connotations, it doesn’t have any necessarily negative connotations. It’s just sort of the way things are. One thing that researchers are starting to think about is other metaphors that might highlight the negative connotations of the income inequality issue. Talking about it as an imbalance or something like that, might lead people to see that there’s this systemic problem with income inequality. If we want balanced systems and there’s an imbalance in the distribution of resources, then that’s a bad thing and we should seek to remedy that problem. That’s a way of describing the same issue, but with implications that it’s inherently bad.


EN: Obama describes a broken immigration system, a broken healthcare system, and shaking up the education system. What meaning does the system metaphor convey? What kind of frame does it place around these issues?

PT: There’s definitely the sense that [a] mechanistic metaphor underlies a lot of the kinds of systems that we’ve developed. When we talk about the educational system and being able to fix it, we’re putting ourselves in the position of an engineer who can fix a machine that has decided it’s not going to work anymore. That’s a very empowering feature of the mechanistic idea and the use of the word fix.

But talking about these things as systems also highlights their inherent complexity. I think that to some respects talking about the educational system does highlight that complexity, but in some sense the mechanistic metaphor and being able to fix something is kind of at odds with the complexity that we know is inherent to the educational system.

I empathize with the President in trying to discuss those kinds of ideas. On one hand you want to make it seem like those are problems that can be solved, and so it’s useful to tap into the mechanistic kind of metaphors. But it’s possible that using those kinds of metaphors might set up unrealistic expectations. We’ve seen over the course of recent history that a lot of administrations have tried to make substantial changes to the educational system, to the healthcare system, and other systems. Often we go through similar debates. It seems like we’re cycling through the same kinds of questions with each successive administration, and I think that one problem that we have in this country is not appreciating how complicated a lot of these issues are.

Problem Setting

EN: In a piece for The Psych Report this past summer, you describe the benefits of problem setting as opposed to simply thinking about problem solving. Can you think of an issue that is ripe for problem setting?

PT: Income inequality versus opportunity inequality seems like a case where there’s a conflict in problem setting. Whereas Democrats want to argue that the underlying problem is income inequality, Republicans want to argue that the problem is opportunity inequality. [It’s] a really interesting case where different sides are proposing very different conceptions of what the underlying problem is. If the underlying problem is income inequality then that’s going to lead to one particular set of suggestions, and if the problem is opportunity inequality then that’s going to lead to a very different set of proposals. I think that’s a case where we’re watching a problem setting process unfold.

Other big problems that the country is grappling with right now surround immigration. I think that’s a problem that hasn’t been well set. There’s also the education issue, which I think is another problem that isn’t well set. Whenever Obama talks about fixing or shaking something up, I think that’s a weak way of setting a problem. There are more productive ways of being explicit about what the underlying issue is. Yes, we have an immigration problem, yes we have problems with the educational system, but we need to narrow in and figure out what do we really want to try to achieve here, what is the biggest issue that we want to think about. These are big, systemic, complex issues, and the way that we set those problems, the kinds of ideas that we put forward, the way that we talk about those problems, is really going to affect how we think about their solutions.

Current Research

EN: Are you doing any research now that relates to some of these broader issues that President Obama discussed?

PT: Absolutely. I’m currently doing some work on how we talk about education. There seem to be a pair of widespread metaphors that are used to talk about the educational system. One appeals to a factory narrative. Sometimes we talk about schools as places where kids go and we mold their young minds, and produce kids who are ready to be slotted into jobs, or ready for college. The factory metaphor seems to be consistent with the idea that standardized testing is really effective at measuring student achievement–we have quality standards and we need to make sure that we’re meeting these quality standards. It’s also sort of consistent with the idea that basically every teacher tries to do the same thing. They’ve got their resource, which is kids, and their job is just to take a standard curriculum and mold those kids into people who can do well on tests and then get a job.

When we talk about the educational system and being able to fix it, we’re putting ourselves in the position of an engineer who can fix a machine.

There’s another metaphor that’s very different, which conceptualizes education systems in schools as gardens–where we’re trying to grow young children and help them reach their potential. In that metaphor, the kids’ environment is really important–extracurricular activities, a kid’s surroundings. Different kids will thrive in different environments, and different kids will grow into very different kinds of things. That’s a pair of metaphors, a factory versus a garden that I’m looking at in the educational setting.

In general, I am also looking at the difference between metaphors that seem to simplify a problem and metaphors that seem to highlight the complexity of problems. I think that’s something that was true of the crime case. The beast metaphor really simplified crime into a very concrete problem. If crime is a beast then just go catch the beast and the crime problem is solved. But if crime is a virus, we’re going to have to do some diagnostic tests, we’re going to really have to investigate what the underlying issue is. We’re going to have to treat the problem and maybe change the entire environment.

Noticing Metaphors

EN: In your work with the metaphors on crime, you found that although people’s behavior differed based on the metaphor, very few people actually recognized that a metaphor was at work. Was there any language in Obama’s address or the Republican response that employs a metaphor that is not immediately apparent?

PT: A lot of the metaphors used in Obama’s speech and in the Response are pretty conventional. In general, my guess is that people wouldn’t recognize many of the metaphors at all. In fact as part of my dissertation, I gave people an excerpt from [an Obama] speech, and whereas I had identified 20-30% of the language as metaphorical, participants in general identified maybe 2-3% of the language as metaphorical. So even when people are looking for metaphors, they don’t see them. It’s very possible that people are not picking up on the rich use of metaphor in both speeches. My guess is that the metaphors we’ve talked about are ones that people wouldn’t have noticed explicitly, and that they wouldn’t necessarily think would have a big influence on how they thought about these issues.

What Metaphors Caught Your Attention?

EN: Are there any metaphors or use of language that stuck out to you?

PT: Obama’s use of deepens. That really struck me. I thought that was a powerful metaphor, fairly novel to me. It was really imagistic. It made me envision that we’re sort of digging our own grave in a sense, by allowing these systemic issues to continue.

One of the metaphors that is often instantiated in these kinds of speeches–it shows up in both the State of the Union and the Response–is this underlying journey metaphor. It’s been argued that in order to be productive human beings, we need to embrace an idea that our life has meaning and that we’re making progress everyday. If you think of a nation as a kind of body, then we want the nation to have a purpose, to be consistently making progress, and get better every year. That idea was a focal point of both speeches–appealing to this underlying journey idea, and the need to move towards progress.

Disclosure: Paul Thibodeau is a member of The Psych Report’s Advisory Board.