Preparing for the State of the Union


What is the difference between a 'theme' and a 'frame' in political speech?

According to the media, President Bush is busy rolling out the 'themes' he will present in his State of the Union Address, but is this really accurate? Not really. Despite what the media will tell us over the next few days, President Bush's 'theme' will not be very important. In fact, if Americans focus on the 'theme,' they may miss what the President has really doing this past week: frame the debate.

There Are Only Two 'Themes' In Politics: Change vs. More of the Same

In the State of the Union address, as in any election campaign, there are really only two possible themes in political debate.

Either a politician is talking about 'change' or they are talking about 'continuity' -- more of the same.

The 'theme' in this respect is just a broad organizing principle on which the individual messages of a campaign hang. When a communications director sits down with his or her candidate to prepare for a long campaign, the first thing they will discuss is the 'theme' for that campaign. "Is our theme going to be 'continuity' or 'change'?"

Not surprisingly, which candidates or politicians pick 'change' and which pick 'More of the Same' as their theme is easy to predict.

Politicians already in office pick 'more of the same.' Those seeking to get into office pick 'change.' (Not rocket science).

In a political campaign within government, the choice is the same. For the party governing, the messages that begin a new term of entering into office are guided by the theme 'change' which slowly gives way to 'more of the same' the longer that official holds office.

President Bush campaigned under the theme 'change' when he was first elected, and then switched to 'more of the same' in his second term. And he's been there ever since.

Overall, as we can see, knowing what the 'theme' will be for President Bush's State of the Union is not very helpful. We already know it.

The real question we should be asking -- and it would be great if the media was also asking it -- is: What 'frame' is President Bush attempting to build in his communications leading up to the State of the Union?

That is a much more important question, and it is much more difficult to see.

Frames Provide the Broad Logic for An Entire Debate

To find the frames for the President's State of the Union, we need to ask (1) What has the President saying and (2) How has he been saying it?

Answers to these two questions will allow us to arrive at a very broad set of ideas and values that the President wants to put in place so as to structure everything that is said before, during and after the State of the Union.

FRAME 1: President as Friend of the People

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