Thursday, July 15, 2010

It's Really Getting There

Another set of polls and more cries of Obama failure. On the one hand, Joe Klein writes that it's baseless panic--that the polls showing a drop in confidence in Obama show even less confidence in Congress, and even less than that in Republicans. What's driving poll numbers down is the economy.

On the other hand, John Dickerson writes that the White House, and President Obama specifically have been ineffective in communicating their successes.

Faithful readers of this site will likely not be surprised that I think they are both right. But that the White House itself believes that economic anxieties are responsible for less than stellar poll numbers is perhaps part of the problem. Because while that is true, it is only part of the truth. For various reasons (or unreasons), the very real and very large Obama accomplishments aren't getting through as they should be. While as Klein notes, Obama is still more popular and trusted than anybody else, he should be clearly seen as such. Why isn't he?

Evidence that accomplishments and what they are doing for ordinary Americans isn't getting through is clearest in poll numbers on the Recovery Act. The latest CBS poll says only 23% believe it has helped the economy. Another poll's result claimed that less than 10% believed it has created any jobs.

That's beyond disconcerting--it's frightening. But for the moment, let's stick with disconcerting. So the administration claims to have created or saved between 2.5 and 3.6 million jobs with the Recovery Act, and a Seattle Times report flat out says: "A growing body of independent economic analysis suggests the stimulus package has boosted jobs and kept people off the unemployment line." So why isn't that the headline--not just in the newspaper, but in voter perception? Why isn't America cheering the President on?

Apart from the likelihood that a lot of Americans are, there are two factors I see. One is that the White House really hasn't been very good at communicating their successes. Unfortunately I don't know why, or what they should be doing. The second applies in particular to the Recovery Act: although the spending has both saved jobs and created jobs as well as seeding new industries, especially in clean energy, and is otherwise benefiting the American economy and society long-term, it apparently isn'tt building stuff that makes a big impression.

The actual success in its time of FDR's Works Progress Administration and other such projects has been inflated in historical recollection--FDR backed off under fire after little more than a year--but that's a different topic. The immediate and enduring imagery of those FDR projects had to do with large numbers of men with shovels, with big solid granite buildings and cement bridges being built, and land being very obviously cleared and landscaped for parks.

These projects not only made for great photos, virtually immune to misinterpretation, but they made immediate local impacts where they happened. So in this sense the cablemouths bloviating about building roads and bridges to get people back to work have a point. Those projects are visible and obvious, and more of them--as well as visually bigger projects--should have been financed early by the Recovery Act, and communicated every step of the way.

Instead, a lot of money went to dire necessities--like keeping the states from running out of money to pay for Medicaid, and to keep police and fire fighters working. That was necessary, but it's hard to take a picture of somebody not losing their job.

Money also went to where GOPers hearts are: helping the private sector, rather than creating public jobs. So it's hard to even identify or quantify the jobs created there, let alone show them on TV. Or else the number of jobs or type of jobs created at a specific clean energy manufacturer, say, aren't as visually impressive as big assemly lines. As the Seattle Times story said:

"The Recovery Act appears to be stimulating private investment and job creation at a time when the economy needs it most," Christina Romer, chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers, says in testimony prepared for a hearing of Congress's Joint Economic Committee later today.... "I suspect the true effects of the act will not be fully analyzed or fully appreciated for many years," she said, adding that most experts agreed that the stimulus had had a "significant, beneficial impact on employment and output over the past year."

It was important to put that money to work to keep the current economy from getting worse while laying the groundwork for the future, again particularly in seeding a clean energy economy which is crucial to U.S. competitiveness even in the near future, as well as helpful to civilization having any future. I've got no problem with all that being either less than visible or not "fully appreciated for many years." But somebody should have figured out that some of that money had to go to high profile projects, not even for political reasons but to bolster the morale and confidence of the American public. Either that wasn't done, or it hasn't been effectively communicated.

There is however another contributing factor that neither Klein or Dickerson notes. And it is that for any number of reasons and mostly unreasons, we're in a terrible, unfathomable downward spiral of the spirit, of the collective intelligence, that may not stop soon. It may not be dark yet, but it's really, really getting there.

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