Democrats and Republicans are in a race to define the $825 billion stimulus bill before the other can – wielding poll-tested words and carefully polished talking points to cement their vision of the plan in the public mind.
Barack Obama promises to “modernize” 10,000 schools, “weatherize” 2.5 million homes, and “computerize” health records in five years – action words straight out Madison Avenue, says one expert. Republicans counter that it’s a “trillion dollar spending plan,” bureaucrats throwing money at “government programs.”
The stakes are high, and whoever succeeds best will come out of the debate with a stronger hand to shape the package as they see fit – tilted more heavily to spending as Democrats prefer, or more greatly toward tax cuts the way Republicans want.
If there’s any doubt that words matter, President George W. Bush is a cautionary tale.
He allowed the $700 billion Wall Street rescue plan to become known as a “bailout” – conjuring up images of Wall Street billionaires and their banks getting a taxpayer-funded handout – and public opinion turned sharply against the idea. His argument that rescue plan was needed to prevent a worldwide financial collapse just couldn’t compete with that image.
That’s why Republicans this time are going out of the way to emphasize who will be helped by their vision of a plan – families, entrepreneurs, the self-employed.
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.”
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 sufficient, and much of the bill is ladened with Democratic projects that they couldn't get funded under Bush.
“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 said.
On the Democratic side, 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
Democratic pollster Peter Hart’s research showed here’s what sells for Democrats: Describe the plan as “bold.” Don’t mention the eye-popping amount but play up job creation.
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.
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 and AFSCME, which launched a multi-million dollar ad campaign based on its findings.
The public acknowledges the need for action, according to Hart’s national poll of 801 voters, but the $700 billion financia rescue bill last fall also made them wary of a repeat.
In terms of simple word choice, more voters responded favorably to “economic recovery” than “economic stimulus.” The percentage of voters who favor 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 pricetag, 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.
“We did polling to help understand where the American people are and to help them understand the plan, not to create the plan, to figure out how best to make Americans understand what’s in an economic investment and recovery plan,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Friday.
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.”