Barack Obama is often a great communicator. But when it comes to discussions about the sorry state of the economy, he has failed to connect.
Obama, who proved so remarkably agile when it came to discussing America’s place in the world, and whose ability to add a few grace notes to the country’s stilted dialogue about race made even his critics begin to see him as presidential, has since January 20, 2009, struggled to connect with Americans who worry not about the job they lost but about whether they will ever work again.
The current jobs crisis—and, make no mistake, from Toledo to Tulsa to Tarpon Springs, this crisis is real, and getting more real by the minute—has weighed on Obama from the first day of his presidency. And he has never been able to find the right words.
Yes, yes, of course, deeds mean more than words, especially when the official unemployment rate is 9.2 percent, and the real rate (including the underemployed and those who have given up on the search for work) is 16.2 percent.
But even when Obama has gotten things right, as he did with the 2009 infusion of federal funds that allowed local governments and schools nationwide to keep functioning, he has gotten the language all wrong.
That infusion of federal cash was called a “stimulus.”
It is hard to imagine a worse word choice. People didn’t want “stimulus.” They wanted work.
The ill-defined yet definitionally bureaucratic word “stimulus” confused and alienated Americans. It sounded like a new variation on the Bush-Cheney administration bailouts of Wall Street and the big banks, which was supposed to “stimulate” lending but instead took from the poor and gave to the rich—who were not even polite enough to say “thank you” as they rushed to deposit the checks.
So it was that, even as Obama tried to do what was necessary, he got the message all wrong.
So wrong that, when it came time to begin investing in actual job creation (as opposed to stabilizing moves that were designed to prevent more layoffs), Obama found himself struggling to overcome the impression that he was wasting money as wantonly as Bush, Cheney, John Boehner and Paul Ryan did on tax cuts for the rich and bailouts for the banks.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who has proven to be a steadier and savvier player than the other top Democrats in DC, recently signaled that she will no longer use the word” stimulus.”
Pelosi understand that the word is toxic—or, as the Washington newspaper The Hill suggested in its report on Pelosi’s move, “close to a dirty word.”
She also understands something else: President Obama and the Democrats have lost a lot of ground because of a failure to focus on fundamentals.