President Obama has been failing a crucial test in the past few weeks. In the first (and possibly most important, at least for a while) legislative struggle in Congress, President Obama's stimulus package has had its ups and downs. But what is truly missing is one entire side of this debate. Where are the cheerleaders for the stimulus package?
Where are the point people out there strongly making the case for the bill? I hear a lot of noise from the Republicans who are fighting the stimulus package, but what response there is from the Democratic side has been mostly weak, disorganized, and off-message. John Kerry did a pretty good job this past Sunday, but other than that, the Republicans are the ones all over the airwaves. Which means the Democrats (and Obama) are in danger of letting their opponents frame the issue in the public's mind.
This is not a good way to lead. Democrats have to get out in front of the media narrative, and make their case in such a clear and compelling fashion that ordinary Americans can understand what the fight is all about.
Here's just one example of many: the biggest tax cut Obama wants. This one should be so easy that I really shouldn't have to talk about it here -- because Democrats should have, by now, been dominating this particular debate. But they haven't. This is a tax cut Republicans are actually against for Pete's sake, and such silver-platter issues usually aren't this obvious.
President Obama has proposed a tax cut on payroll taxes. Republicans are against it, and even have taken to calling it "welfare." Excuse me? Welfare? Tax cuts are now welfare in Republicanland?
Sorry, I keep astonishing myself whenever I think of it, because it is just so easy to refute.
Here is a typical Republican discussing the matter: "Obama is spending enormous amounts of money on what he calls a 'tax cut' to people who don't even pay income taxes which is what I call 'welfare' and I intend to vote against it."
Here is what Democrats should respond with: "Everyone who works -- except workers making six-figure incomes or above who actually pay less -- has the same payroll taxes taken out of their paycheck. What the president is proposing is to give a $500-per-worker tax cut to these payroll taxes. Are some people going to get this money who don't pay income taxes? Yes, because they are too poor to be charged income taxes in the first place. This is not welfare, these people are working. Working hard. And this is the only way possible to cut taxes on the lowest-paid workers of all. We think that the tax cuts for the wealthy which Republicans have pushed for so long need to be balanced out by cutting taxes on the other end of the income scale. So that waitresses, substitute teachers, and janitors get a break on their taxes, too. Instead of sending this out in one check, as Bush did, we are going to spread it over a full year, in each and every paycheck. This, the experts tell us, means that most of the money will be pumped back into the economy rather than saved. So we are going to fight for lower taxes on all workers and the Republicans are going to refuse to give the hardest-working Americans of all a tax cut. I guess they're only for tax cuts for Wall Street, but we're going to fight for tax cuts for Main Street."
How hard is that? Well them, why aren't Democrats shouting this from the rooftops?
Another framing issue that Democrats are actually gaining a bit of traction on is "what Republicans are fighting for is the same thing that got us into this mess." There are variations on this theme, from "we won the election" to "why should we listen to their old ideas when we tried that, and look where it has gotten us."
In other words, tie it up in a nice package: Republicans were in charge. They passed their economic ideas. America's economy collapsed. Let's try something new and different now. Doing the same thing that got us here isn't going to help.
But this nice package really could use a bow on top. So here is a proposal a friend of mine made over the weekend, to frame the basic subject itself -- start using the term "The Bush Recession."
It's handy because the basic subject ("the economy stinks") comes up several times in any discussion of what to do about it. Sometimes it even comes up multiple times in one sentence. So get all Democrats in a room somewhere and drill them all in the talking point until it becomes second-nature. Then never, ever talk about the economy in public without saying "The Bush Recession" at least five times on camera. Pretty soon the media will pick it up, and Republicans are painted into a corner.
While in the same room, hammer into Democrats not to talk about any aspect of the stimulus without linking it to job creation. Jobs, jobs jobs. Anytime Republicans try to tear down the plan, counter with how many jobs they would destroy if they did so. Ask Republicans "why are you against creating jobs?"
I have to admit (as I always do when talking about the economy) that I am no economist nor do I even attempt to play one on the web. And I am not defending the stimulus package here in detail, because I certainly haven't read all its hundreds of pages, and so don't know if it would be a good thing or a bad thing, as a whole.
But I bet I would be pretty receptive to an easy explanation of what's in it and what it hopes to accomplish. I don't know, because the Democrats haven't done a great job of explaining it, explaining why it is necessary, and why Republicans are wrong to oppose it.
President Obama would be the best one to rectify this situation. Call a press conference and give a short speech. Personify the goals. "Increasing broadband into rural areas means Americans living in small towns across the country will have the same choices people in large cities do to access information. And somebody's got to build the infrastructure, meaning new jobs for people."
Or how about "We are trying to cut taxes for the hardest working Americas out there. Republicans never used to be against any tax cut of any type, but they've chosen this one to fight against. I hope those Republicans can explain to their waitress or their driver or their gardener why their taxes shouldn't be cut. Because I can't."
Obama has it in him. We've seen it, over and over on the campaign trail. He has done an admirable job of lowering expectations for his administration by repeatedly warning that times are going to be tough for some time to come. But he's got to start being a better salesman for his solution to the problem. He (or his appointed cheerleaders) need to do a better job of selling this package to the American people. Because, for the most part, the public has been inundated with Republican talking points about how bad and evil the plan is, and people have not adequately heard the other side of the story.
If Democrats don't start doing a better job of making their case, they risk plummeting support for the next items on their agenda. They've probably got the votes to get the stimulus package through even without defending it to the press and to the public, but remember that this is just the first step. There are other important legislative battles to come. The way to win these battles is to get popular opinion overwhelmingly behind the master plan. What worries me is that Democrats just aren't doing so very effectively at the start of the process.
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com