Is the recession past or present? Obama struggles with economic message

Will Rahn Senior Editor
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In the hundreds of references he has made to the economy since last November, President Obama has repeatedly switched back and forth between describing the recession as a historical event and an ongoing reality.

As recently as October, Obama was toggling between referring to the economy in the past and present tenses, Bloomberg reports. He talked about the nation’s “post-recession” condition on October 18, and addressed “this brutal recession” as an ongoing event just six days later.

Obama’s inconsistency could complicate the White House’s efforts to convince voters the economy is improving. “When he’s referring to the recession in the present tense, it tends to aggravate the gloom,” economist Nigel Gault said. “But if he’s too positive, he looks out of touch.”

Wayne Fields, an expert on presidential rhetoric at Washington University in St. Louis, said Obama’s “inconsistency has stirred anxiety” with voters, but that “the anxiety is also what is driving the inconsistency.” Obama, said Fields, is “held to a higher bar” because voters realize he is capable of articulating a national vision, and indeed made it one of the cornerstones of his campaign in 2008.

“So far, he hasn’t been able to incorporate new details into the story,” he said.

Another problem Obama faces is that in contrast to other presidents who ran for re-election during times of economic trouble, voters have so far not seen much in the way of growth or improved conditions.

“Obama couldn’t say ‘Morning in America,’” Democratic strategist Bob Shrum told Bloomberg, referring to President Reagan’s 1984 election slogan. That year, Reagan successfully ran for re-election despite high unemployment because the economy was starting to improve dramatically.

In contrast, Obama will likely have to campaign during a time when the economy shows few signs of obvious improvement. The White House itself predicts 9 percent unemployment and sluggish 2.9 percent growth in 2012. To put that number in perspective, President George H.W. Bush lost his re-election bid in 1992 despite 4 percent growth and 7.2 percent unemployment in a race largely focused on the economy.

Bush, says Shrum, lost in part because he always insisted the economy was healthy, and that as a result “people thought that he was totally out of touch with them.” It’s a mistake Obama is trying hard to avoid.

According to a Quinnipiac poll released in October, 77 percent of Americans believe the country is still in a recession even though the economy is growing, however slowly. “Even though economists may say that the recession officially ended last year,” Obama said in a September speech, “it’s still very real” for millions of unemployed Americans. At his last State of the Union address, however, Obama announced the end “of the worst recession most of us have ever known.”

“Corporate profits are up,” he said. “The economy is growing again.”

The language Obama uses when describing the economy can shift depending on what kind of audience he is speaking to. “Nearly two years after one of the worst recession in our history — certainly the worst one in our lifetimes — our economy is showing signs of real strength,” he said at a UPS factory in April.

Six days later, Obama changed his tone when speaking to a mostly black audience in New York. “Those with the least have been sacrificing the most during this recession,” he said at an event hosted by Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. As of October, the unemployment rate stood at over 15 percent for African-Americans, compared to 8 percent for whites.

The White House’s difficulty finding the right note to strike about the economy likely stems from its ineffective messaging in the lead up to the mid-term elections in 2010. Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress claimed they had driven the economy “out of the ditch” after the fiscal mismanagement of the Bush years.

“That turned out to be disastrous,” Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg told the news site. That November, Democrats lost 63 seats in the House.

“Many on his economic team want him to talk up the economy,” Greenberg said. “Every day there’s a discussion on, ‘What balance do you take on this?’”

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