Framing "Our American Budget"

By Susan C. Strong, The Metaphor Project, January 28, 2011

Word is that Congress will receive President Obama's budget in early February. But it's already in trouble, given the Rights' latest hostage game—stopping U.S. default-prevention, unless they get their cuts. How can progressives help to counter this? The first step is framing the problem in a way Americans can get. To begin with, "the federal" budget is actually the American budget. So the first step in better framing is to stop calling it "federal." A second step is dropping the "the" in favor of always saying "our national budget," or "our American budget." But there's a lot more we need to do after that. If you think talking about "our American budget" is "rebranding," you would be right, but not the way four top ad agencies did it in the February 2011 Harper's magazine.1 Their focus on government "services and products," or "government as a product" (p.37) or as "a machine that works" (p.42) was dead wrong, even if it was tongue in cheek. Field research on the best way to frame government, budgets and taxes by The Frameworks Institute and The Opportunity Agenda paints a very different picture.2

Their most important finding is that we should be talking about the public as citizens planning our common future via our budget. Frameworks even suggested using the metaphor of pay it forward to explain the way public budgeting works. Drop talking about the public as consumers of government products and services. That evokes checking to see if each of us personally is getting a good enough deal for our tax money. (Of course, no one believes that, because everyone takes absolutely for granted what we do get for it.) Instead, we need to frame our national budget as the primary vehicle for offering a safe, healthy, productive future to all Americans in the challenging years ahead.

Another aspect of that kind of planning is preventing future harms. The most important thing most of our people need is hope and a goal that feels real. Cut our American budget now just for the sake of cutting, and America bleeds faster and longer. So we must also keep repeating Obama's main point about "our national budget." It's the primary tool for spelling out our government's role in "restoring the American dream." The real challenge is to do the things that will actually work in today's globalizing economy. After all we're Americans—we do what works. That is our nation's most widely shared value, according to research by two highly respected organizations funded by The MacArthur foundation.3

Our national budget is the place where that rubber hits the road.

  1. "A Super Bowl Spot for Uncle Sam: Can Madison Avenue Make Us Love Our Government?, A Forum with Perry Fair, Mark Fitzloff, Thomas Frank, Marc Sobier, and Con Williamson," in the February 2011 issue.
  2. "How To Talk About Budgets and Taxes: A Frameworks Message Memo" at and "Ensuring Equal and Expanded Opportunity" at
  3. "Choosing the Nation's Fiscal Future," Chapter 2, Framing the Choices, produced by the National Research Council and The National Academy of Public Administration at