President Obama’s subtle trick to sell “free” nationalized community college


On Thursday, President Obama announced from Air Force One an unprecedented plan to extend federally-funded universal public education up through community college for everyone. Students would have to maintain a certain grade point average and choose plans and colleges that have proven career success. The plan will be fully articulated in the President’s annual budget proposal, which will be dead on arrival in the newly Republican-controlled Congress, and Obama will provide more details in his upcoming State of the Union address. The estimated cost has not been revealed, but the idea is for the federal government to fund 75% of the program with states picking up the rest.

However, it’s not the details of the program that are so distressing as the subtle, disingenuous way the President has chosen to sell it. Obama made the announcement from his sleak office aboard Air Force One, dressed in a tie but no jacket, leaning back casually on his angled desk. Whoever choreographs these things is a master in marketing.

The recorded, scripted, teleprompter-read nearly two-minute statement was billed as a preview of the State of the Union. The community college initiative is introduced thusly:

Put simply, what I’d like to do is to see the first two years of community college free for everybody who is willing to work for it. That’s right, free for everyone who’s willing to work for it. It’s something we can accomplish, and it’s something that will train our workforce so that we can compete with anybody in the world.

Fantastic! What’s another few billion dollars a year when you’re already $18 trillion in debt? YOLO, amirite?

Here’s the trick: The President of the United States, a Harvard alumnus, a constutional scholar, a former state and US senator, knows that community college lasts only two years. High school graduates go to community college to receive a two-year associates degree or transfer their two years of credits toward a full four-year bachelors degree at a university. But community college itself is only ever two years. So why did he say “the first two years”? It’s almost certainly a rhetorical marketing device.

When you describe something as the “first,” it implies there is also something after it. By suggesting the “first” two years of community college be “free,” he is subliminally trying to convince you that it’s a partial plan, that he’s not funding the whole thing, that it’s not a full ride, that he’s not creating a(nother) massive new entitlement for millions of people, that he’s just helping you out a little. No big deal, it’s just the first two years after all.

The written White House statement on the plan doesn’t attempt the same trick, nor do most of the online reports covering it, even those by the sympathetic White House praetorian guard, probably because it wouldn’t be as effective in writing as when spoken. But you will be certain to hear it in every lame duck campaign stop the President makes over the next few weeks as well as in the State of the Union on January 20. And when you do, you’ll know that no matter how many convincing details or rational arguments for the plan he provides, he tried to subconsciously color your thinking about it from the get go.

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