Metaphors are concepts we live by, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

To mark today’s inauguration of President Biden, I am sharing below a blog I posted four years ago (9/20/16) about President Obama’s perspective on what it took for his administration to solve the economic crises our country faced when his presidency began. President Biden and the country would benefit from keeping Obama’s ocean liner metaphor in mind as the new administration addresses multiple crises — multiple ocean liners — simultaneously.

• • •

By now you know how much I like metaphor. And I admit I like Obama. These two biases are influencing this blog. But I think the message of this metaphor is important. Remember, “the medium is the message,”Marshall McLuhan.

The following is taken from an article by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, May 23, 2016. Obama described how big democratic societies work: “They are like ocean liners: you turn the wheel slowly, and the big ship pivots. Sometimes your job is just to make stuff work. Sometimes the task of government is to make incremental improvements or to try to steer the ocean liner two degrees north or south so that, ten years from now, suddenly we’re in a very different place than we were. At the moment, people may feel like we need a fifty-degree turn; we don’t need a two degree turn. And you say, Well, if I turn fifty degrees the whole ship turns over.” 

Gopnik notes that the president wasn’t saying that big ships aren’t worth turning, just that it takes time. Their very bigness is what makes them turn slowly, but their bigness is also what makes them worth turning. He points out that what we have passed through in the eight years of the Obama presidency, is perhaps larger than we know. When an ocean liner changes course, the people on deck are often the last to notice.

This metaphor has helped me understand and appreciate Obama’s political views and practice. Obama explained his political view: “Liberalism is a belief in radical change made through practical measures.” My favorable bias to begin was expanded because of the message of the medium. The message of the ocean liner metaphor influenced both my understanding and appreciation.

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  1. Marianne Fontana says:

    That message from Obama is so descriptive of careful thought and action.
    I am beyond grateful to have Biden at the helm. He has much of that same wisdom. He adds such sensitivity and understanding of people and politics. We were frightened that something would happen to him at the inauguration. It was such a moving/emotional day!

  2. bcasey427 says:

    I agree with the ocean liner metaphor, but I also think that we are in a spot where FAST BIG action is really necessary. Let’s hope w can get it to try to “right” the ship of state!

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