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How To Sell A Stimulus Plan

For Barack Obama and fellow Democrats pitching an $825 billion stimulus package, here’s what sells:

Describe the plan as “bold.” Don’t mention the eye-popping amount but play up job creation, according to Democratic pollster Peter Hart’s research.

Sure enough, in his radio address Saturday, Obama followed the script. He spoke of acting “boldly,” focused heavily on jobs and never once mentioned the cost.

Obama promised to end the perpetual campaign in Washington but in the first test of his administration, he’s pulling out all the tactics of one — conducting polls, prepping lawmakers with carefully honed talking points and taking in research by outside groups.

Even the title of his economic package is a gem of opinion-gathering precision: the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan, which mixes buzzwords and policy goals that scored best in polling on the crisis.

The stakes on both sides are high, and Obama’s not alone. Republican offices on Capitol Hill and interest groups pro and con all are polling and strategizing how best to frame the issue, knowing that whichever side succeeds will have the upper hand in shaping the bill’s final outcome.

That’s why Republicans in Congress repeatedly call the bill a “trillion-dollar spending plan,” using its unprecedented size and scope to stoke concerns about government falling deeper into a financial hole.

Another Republican emphasis: Assisting small businesses, which conjures up images of Main Street USA — not government bureaucrats — making common sense decisions about what’s right for the economy.

“I would put moms, apple pies and small business in the same category,” said David Winston, a Republican strategist who works with House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). “There is not a belief that government can clearly create private sector jobs.”

But Republicans are competing against a president who perfected the art of packaging as a candidate, at a time when a majority of voters say they want more government intervention – not less, as the GOP argues. In his first days in the White House, Obama has shown he remains a skilled practitioner of presentation.

“This is the big difference between the Democratic party of Barack Obama and the Democratic party of John Kerry,” said Jeffrey Feldman, author of the 2007 book, Framing the Debate: Famous Presidential Speeches and How Progressives Can Use Them to Change the Conversation (and Win Elections). “They see the language being used to sell the package as crucial. Republicans got that message 15 years ago.”

Obama was critical last fall of former President George W. Bush’s handling of the $700 billion financial rescue package. Bush allowed the bill to be characterized as a “bailout” and never changed its image as a gift to Wall Street billionaires and their banks.

Obama’s Saturday address sought to avoid Bush’s mistake – by explaining in ground-level detail how the spending package would reach average Americans.

In his address, Obama pledged to “modernize” 10,000 schools, “weatherize” 2.5 million homes, and “computerize” health records within five years.

“This is Madison Avenue language,” Feldman said.

It’s also winning language, according to a PowerPoint presentation titled “Winning Messages for the Economic Recovery Plan.” It was prepared in mid-December by Peter D. Hart Research Associates for Americans United for Change, which partnered with other Democratic constituency groups and launched a multi-million dollar ad campaign based on its findings.

The poll was shared with Obama aides and Democratic lawmakers, and a copy was provided to Politico.

The public acknowledges the need for action, according to Hart’s national poll of 801 voters, but the $700 bilion financial rescue legislation approved last fall also made them wary of a repeat. The challenge for proponents is framing the newest government intervention as something different than the last.

In terms of simple word choice, more voters responded favorably to “economic recovery” than “economic stimulus.” The percentage of voters who support expanding public investments that create jobs – even if that means increasing the budget deficit – grew from 48 percent in June 2008 to 64 percent in December 2008.

Regarding the massive price-tag, only 18 percent of voters said they wanted “a plan that spends $800 billion.” But when the bill was described as “a plan large and bold enough to deal with the crisis,” 35 percent of voters approved.

Hart concluded the 21-page report with five message recommendations: “Make this about long-term investments to strengthen the nation’s economy, and helping a middle class in trouble. Increasing federal spending to provide economic ‘stimulus’ is NOT what Americans are looking for. Creating jobs is the most important immediate goal for plan. Energy conservation, education and health care are sound long-term investments (but not broadband or medical records). The plan includes careful, targeted spending with strong accountability measures.”

Obama’s top aides briefed Democratic lawmakers earlier this month on the language they should use in describing the package. But they also appear sensitive to the charge that Obama is doing what he decried during the campaign, when he criticized Democratic primary rival Hillary Rodham Clinton by saying Washington needed a leader who did not "poll-test our positions and tell everyone what they want to hear."

“We did polling to help understand where the American people are and to help them understand the plan, not to create the plan," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Friday, "to figure out how best to make Americans understand what’s in an economic investment and recovery plan.”

As for Republicans, Boehner delivered a radio address Saturday that traces the contours of the opposition argument, which involves reducing taxes, cutting wasteful spending and assisting small businesses. Republicans say the $225 billion in tax breaks in the House Democratic package are insufficient, and that much of the bill is weighted down with Democratic projects that they couldn't get funded under Bush.

Boehner’s language has got some Republican-friendly rhetoric as well. Families and entrepreneurs, good. “Government programs,” bad.

“This week, we presented President Obama with our ideas to jumpstart the economy through fast-acting tax relief – not slow-moving government spending programs,” Boehner said. “We let families, entrepreneurs, small businesses, and the self-employed keep more of what they earn to encourage investment and create millions of new private-sector jobs.”

Boehner also puts a new spin on the familiar “tax-and-spend” critique, saying Democrats want to “borrow and spend our way back to prosperity.”

“Unfortunately, the trillion dollar spending plan authored by congressional Democrats is chock-full of government programs and projects,” Boehner said – putting the price-tag front and center, just the way Obama did not.

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