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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Needed: Economic Pitchmen/Women

Peter Nicholas and Peter Wallsten are on to something in their L.A.Times article “On Economic Matters, Obama Lacks a Secretary of Selling It.”:

Aside from President Obama, the administration has yet to find a commanding figure who can carry economic policy messages and inspire confidence in White House prescriptions…In assembling his economic team, the President gave first priority to technical skill and intellectual achievement. So far, none of his senior advisors has shown the extra ability to inspire as well — both on Wall Street and Main Street…Because the programs are complex, costly and politically unpopular, the dearth of administration officials who can dominate the stage is becoming a serious handicap.

Economists can be eloquent fellows talking to each other and to other policy wonks. However,

“The ability to communicate with average people was not what these people were chosen for,” said Alice M. Rivlin, budget director under President Clinton. “They were chosen for their understanding of the problem and their ability to think creatively about it and to work out solutions to what is admittedly a very complex issue.”…Selling the president’s economic plans “clearly has not been their forte,” she said

Certainly no one has identified any nascent media stars on Obama’s economic team. But has there ever been a really impressive economic policy salesman or woman, as far as the average voter is concerned ? There’s a reason they call Economics “the dismal science.” If you want to clear out a party quickly, just start talking loudly about the Laffer curve or the velocity of M1.
It could be argued that President Reagan and Newt Gingrich were effective economic policy pitchmen. But what they were really selling was simple: deregulation and tax and federal budget cuts — less economic policy. Their pitch was well-timed, if ill-considered and simplistic. Never mind that they ended up tripling the federal deficit.
Like Obama, FDR was his own economic pitchman and by all accounts, he worked the press quite effectively. But it was a simpler time then, and radio, a media industry now dominated by right-wing gasbags, was the make or break p.r. tool. Pitching economic policy to voters is now more about television than any other media, with the influence of the internet rising just as print media begins to fade into history. Moreover, FDR was really selling himself. He was able to convey a bold persona and a sense that he knew what he was doing.
It is unclear whether Obama, his extraordinary speechmaking skills notwithstanding, can sell himself as effectively over time in our more cynical era. Communications tools are more complex, and that can be a good thing for a media-savvy president (see our staff post below). He has gotten high marks from economists for his media advocacy of economic policy reforms, according to Wallsten and Nicholas. But there is a fear among his staff of over-exposure, and worse, burnout. Tonight he will face the media in his second news conference, and hopefully will do as well as in his first press conference. Generally, however, he should play to his strength — speechifying.
Bottom line is a great many people are still bewildered or bored by economic policy discussions, despite the loud arguments about economic policy taking place in living rooms, bars and at water coolers across the country. It doesn’t matter if you have the greatest salesman/woman in the world fronting your agenda. Bailouts for failed banks and auto companies, along with subsidies for imprudent homeowners are a tough sell, no matter how well-justified by the cold hard facts. Ditto for tax hikes and reassuring voters that their retirement assets will one day return from the market’s Bermuda Triangle.
President Obama’s hole card is that voters well-understand that he has inherited a horrible mess not of his making, and most get it that there is no quick fix. He has to be careful, though, not to parrot this meme so much that it starts to sound like whining. Leave that thankless task to his economic team.

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