How To Talk About the Economic Recovery Plan
By Bernie Horn
January 11, 2009 - 9:27pm ET
This past Thursday, Barack Obama gave an 18-minute speech about his economic stimulus plan and never once used the word “stimulus.” His talk was all about saving jobs and reinvesting in America. His Saturday radio address was the same.
There are some important message-framing lessons here for progressive advocates:
1. Don’t call it a “stimulus plan”; call it an “economic recovery” or “recovery and reinvestment” plan—that’s what Americans understand.
2. Stress the need for jobs and reinvestment—that’s what Americans want.
3. Make sure you identify it as Obama’s plan—that’s who Americans trust.
Progressive advocates too often fail to use words skillfully. The most common problem is that political insiders tend to speak in a technical language, words and phrases from the business of lobbying or the language of economics. Elected officials carry on a never-ending conversation about bills from the past, measures under consideration, and current law—and then they mistakenly use the same language when talking to voters. In one presidential debate, Al Gore talked about the “Dingle-Norwood” bill five times in the course of five minutes. Four years later, John Kerry referred to “the Duelfer report,” “stop-loss policies,” and “sneak-and-peek searches.”
Policy advocates use insider language even more egregiously than elected officials do. We say TABOR and HAVA when talking about the Taxpayer Bill of Rights and the Help America Vote Act (both unhelpful titles in the first place). We refer to SB 234 and the Akaka amendment. We talk about “stakeholders,” “pay-go” requirements, and the “ag community.” It’s a tough habit to break.
Calling the economic recovery proposal a “stimulus plan” may be accurate but it sounds like technical language to average Americans. It describes a process instead of a result.
In contrast, the word “recovery” addresses Americans’ number one goal—job creation. Right now, our fellow citizens are far more concerned about “loss of jobs” than any other national problem.
Here’s an example of the power of the jobs argument. Last month a Hart Research poll found that given the choice between “reducing taxes” and “public investment,” Americans favored reducing taxes by 51 to 45 percent. But adding three words made a gigantic difference. Given the choice between “reducing taxes” and “public investment to create jobs,” Americans favored public investment by 61 to 34 percent.
Granted, the economy is so horrific that a majority favors a recovery plan even when it is poorly described. Gallup recently asked, “Do you favor or oppose Congress passing a new $775 billion economic stimulus program as soon as possible after Barack Obama takes office?” This question uses “stimulus,” ignores the concepts of job creation and investment, and makes it sound like this is Congress’s plan rather than Obama’s. Nevertheless, 53 percent said they favor the program while 36 percent said they oppose it.
Look at the difference when Hart Research described the plan well: “The Obama administration is considering a proposal to create jobs and strengthen the economy. It would cut taxes for the middle class, make major investments in the country’s infrastructure, reform health care to make it more affordable and accessible to all Americans, and reduce America's dependence on foreign oil.” This time, 79 percent of Americans said they favor the plan and only 17 percent said they oppose it.
Using well-crafted language to explain an issue to undecided Americans isn’t cynical and it isn’t a gimmick. Yes, when the right-wing says compassionate conservative, that is manipulation, because it’s the opposite of the truth. But our goal is to use words that persuadable voters understand and appreciate in order to accurately describe our philosophy and our proposed policy solutions. Like a tree falling in the forest, if we speak truth but listeners understand our words differently than we intend, does our truth make a sound?
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