Tuesday, January 25, 2011


Lowry, in the New York Post:

President Obama hopes to be saved by a euphemism.

He is wagering on the power of the word "investment." It sounds so market oriented and cutting edge in contrast to its more pedestrian, politically fraught synonym, "spending," especially the toxic "deficit spending" that, to this point, has defined Obama's presidency.

The focus on "investment" is nothing new. Obama already had leaned heavily on one of the hoariest Democratic tropes. When he signed the stimulus bill in February 2009, he used the word "invest" or "investment" 15 times in a 2,000-word speech. A casual listener might have been hard-pressed to understand that any new government spending was involved at all, what with all the "critical investments," including "the largest new investment in our nation's infrastructure since Eisenhower" and "the largest investment in education in our nation's history." ...

Obviously, my opinion on the stimulus is 180 degrees different from Lowry's -- it didn't work because we needed more of it.

But from what I gather, Lowry is right about Obama's sense that this word can help persuade voters that the few programs for which the president would like to see increases in spending wouldn't see increases in, well, spending. I don't blame the Obamaites for wanting to argue in that way. (A good government program is an investment in America's future.) I just think it's a misreading of how ordinary voters think.

The problem Democrats have in explaining deficit spending in recessions is that ordinary people's experience is actually much closer to GOP rhetoric than to Keynesian rhetoric. When an ordinary American gets into economic trouble, the problem is: I'm spending too much. I'm spending more than I'm taking in. I need to spend less.

Democratic officeholders (and the pundits who admire them) tend to be brainiacs and wonks -- they understand why you sometimes have to spend more money precisely when you have less, but they don't understand that the public doesn't understand it. So they don't explain it in terms that make ordinary people.

The word "investment" doesn't do the job. Ordinary Americans don't "invest," or if they do, they're investing for retirement -- something they stop doing when they're broke. They don't invest the way businesses invest. And they don't think of government as like a business -- they think of it as like a person, or a family. (After a while, goaded by Republicans, they think of it as like a deadbeat relative that keeps asking for money. This is especially true when the anti-recessionary government programs don't seem to work, as they haven't seemed to, to most ordinary Americans, in the past two years.)

Obama might get somewhere if he did something a bit ridiculous in the speech tonight: if, instead of saying he wants to increase "investment" in some worthy programs, he talked about "retraining" America.

No, strike that -- it wouldn't work; it would be pilloried by the right as fascist master Obama ordering America to be his submissive slave.

But "retraining" is a word ordinary Americans actually understand. People who lose jobs in dying industries go through retraining all the time, to learn job skills for new fields, and sometimes it works. It would remind people that sometimes they think it actually makes sense to spend money while going through a rough economic patch -- you do it when there's a clear payoff. Ordinary people might rerspond to something like that. But not "investment."


I watched Rachel Maddow last night and I thought she was naive to argue that Paul Ryan will be offputting as the GOP's official State of the Union responder tonight because his budget "road map" includes draconian cuts to cherished programs such as Medicare and Social Security. Wonks and brainiacs will know that as they watch him. Ordinary Americans won't. And he's bloody well not going to mention any of that. He's just going to talk in generalities. He's going to rail against the White House's "spending binge." And his buzzword -- spending, spending, spending -- is, alas, going to resonate. Voters don't like spending -- until you get down to specifics. Then they rally to offer support for programs they like. But Ryan won't let it get that far. He's just going talk about spending in the abstract. And it will sound bad. And investment won't sound all that good.

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