Column: Obama Needs to Talk the Talk

Published on on Tuesday February 17, 2009

It’s rare to criticize a politician for being all action and no talk, but that’s one of the big things that’s wrong with Obama’s battle against the economic crisis. One of the key variants in any stage of the economic cycle is what the president says is happening. If he talks down the economy, it drops. If he is bullish and optimistic, the markets are likely to listen. Particularly early in his term, when his credibility is high and the spotlight is shining on him, a concerted effort by Obama to inject optimism into his economic commentary could have a very positive effect.

Unfortunately, the president is so anxious to use the bad economy as an excuse to get every last little bit of government spending in the budget, he has pushed the markets down by a nonstop drumbeat of bad news and harsh predictions. When the president says that we may be entering a downturn from which there is no ready escape, investors, consumers, producers and businesspeople tend to listen and avoid any spending or risk. Obama has spent so much time warning of the disaster ahead that he is doing little from his bully pulpit to avert it.

Pessimism comes naturally to the party in opposition, and it takes a while for its members to get the message that they need to embrace optimism once they take power. The Clinton administration did not move toward an upbeat assessment of the economy until its third year in office. Even then, after the president had shifted his rhetoric, the Cabinet was slow to come around.

For Obama, shifting to optimism runs the risk that he loses his credibility if his predictions do not bear fruit. Mounting unemployment numbers could make a mockery of his optimism.

Broadly, Obama faces two negative trends over the next few months. On the one hand, the weekly jobless claims and unemployment data will beat a dirge for which the public will hold him increasingly responsible. This drip-drip-drip will become his equivalent of the casualty lists from Iraq that proved to be Bush’s undoing.

But, in addition, he will face criticism for his stimulus bill as the spending it envisions actually begins to take shape. The price he will pay for his arrogance in ramming the laundry list of government spending through Congress without even letting the members read what they were approving is that the media will focus on each item and make his people justify its inclusion. There will be an ex post facto review of the law, and voters will begin to wonder how economic development aid to Western Samoa or $50 million to the arts will stimulate the economy.

The foreground of negative economic news and the backdrop of revelations of waste and profligacy in the stimulus package will not make for a happy combination in the eyes of increasingly skeptical voters. Already, Rasmussen reports that only 38 percent feel the stimulus package will do much good, while the rest feel it will either harm the economy or have no real effect.

But if Obama doesn’t talk up the economy and emphasize how effective the stimulus package is in ending the recession, he will be throwing away one of his most potent weapons.

All a stimulus package can do is put money in people’s hands. It can’t make them spend it on things that help the economy. If all they hear from the White House is negatives and doom, they will sequester the money in bills or use it to pay down debts, neither of which will do Main Street much good, not to mention Wall Street.

Is the president capable of optimism after years of preaching doom, first in Iraq and now in the economy? We are about to see if he can master a second language.

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