Obama and Warren: A Contrast in Analytic Styles

Andrew Sprung has written a fascinating article in which he lays out the different ways President Obama and Senator Warren talk about the roots of income inequality. He does so by contrasting a speech the President gave in December 2013 on the topic and one Senator Warren gave recently (which he taped and transcribed). Sprung sees a difference in rhetorical styles.

She sees the forests; he knows the trees — and perhaps sees more overlapping, interlocking forests. Whatever your preference, the contrast is striking.

I think his comparison shows that the differences between the two of them go a bit deeper than rhetoric and might help us explain the root of their occasional disagreements.

Where Obama acknowledges multiple causes of our current economic malaise, from global competition and technology to racism as well as Republican tax, regulatory and labor policy, Warren hews to a three-part indictment of Reaganomics: deregulation, tax cuts for the wealthy, and consequent defunding of investments in shared prosperity.

The difference rhetorically is that Warren’s analysis is simpler and cleaner. Obama’s is more complex. What I would add is that Warren breaks down a scenario where it is easier to identify the villains and the victims. While Obama points to Republican policies as a contributor, he includes factors that don’t easily suggest who the “bad guys” are (i.e., global competition and technology).

Behind those differences are differing views of how the world works and how you go about analyzing problems. One view is focused on a linear cause/effect analysis. The other focuses on a feedback loop with systems of interconnectivity.

When it comes to something like trade agreements, this helps us understand why Senator Warren would oppose anything that appears to benefit those she has identified as the cause of the problem…corporations. They are the villains or the “bad guys” who are responsible for income inequality.

On the other hand, because President Obama has a more complex view that includes realities that cannot easily be judged as good or bad (i.e., technology and global competition), he incorporates a view of trade that seeks to interrupt feedback systems that have been detrimental. And as I wrote about recently, a more complex systemic view also goes beyond the economics to see how trade is interwoven with his goals on foreign policy.

In the end, Sprung is right that Senator Warren’s view lends itself to a cleaner political message. There is something to be said for that. But it’s also true that President Obama is no slouch when it comes to rhetorical skills. So the real question for me is more about whose analysis leads to more effective solutions. Perhaps that depends on whether you are trying to mobilize constituencies for a fight or negotiate a trade agreement.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.