Another Obama Challenge: Reframe the Problem

As anyone can attest who has tried to reframe a long-held problem, it can be very difficult to do. First you have to step back and be able to see the problem in a new way, setting aside assumptions, conventions, preconceptions. But that’s not the hardest part: once you’ve got the reframe, you have to convince others.

Even if the reframe strikes many people as fresh and interesting, the old ways of defining the problem tend to keep coming back up, like weeds that refuse to die. The dimensions used to frame and bound a problem have a way of sticking in people’s minds, becoming in many cases more dominant than the problem itself. The dimensions become an end unto themselves, regardless of whether they serve the interests of solving the original problem.

In his inauguration, Obama made a first stab at one major reframe and sought to move beyond the Reagan-era notion of smaller government is better government. Here is what he said:

“What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.”

Exactly — size per se is not the issue. It’s effectiveness. It’s so obvious, but for some reason no-one (that I’ve heard) has laid it out quite so starkly. I hope that he continues to add force and nuance to this message so that we can get past the simplistic idea of just making government smaller, which some people are attached to like a dog to a bone. It’s not the right dimension to measure the problem by, which ultimately is something like, “how can government improve people’s lives in ways that they are unable to do as individuals?”.

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