Later this week, the Senate will vote on the economic stimulus legislation that arrived in their chamber without a single Republican vote. It is unlikely that the Republican opposition will be able to mount a successful filibuster, and it is unlikely, as a result, that the legislation will fail.
But despite the probable success of the legislation, the Obama administration will emerge somewhat bruised from a battle they don't appear to be winning. The message pumping through the media narrative is not about the content and virtue of the stimulus package. Rather, it's that Republican's believe the legislation to be bad, and Democrats believe it to be Obama's.
What the administration needs, and what its senior advisers proved so adept at during the campaign, is a simpler, more compelling, campaign-style message for what this legislation is really about.
What was so exceptional about the Obama campaign was not just its unflinching adherence to a message; it was that the message itself was incredibly persuasive. President Obama's greatest strength is the grace with which he can make a compelling argument. He made such a compelling one at the 2004 Democratic convention that he got himself nominated at the next one. The campaign was able to involve so many in the dissemination of its message, in large part because the message of the campaign could be repeated and argued about by average Americans on average street corners.
If the administration believes that moving the needle on the stimulus debate matters, if they believe that mobilizing the movement they built is a goal worth pursuing, then they should return to that style of argument. The people need better talking points. They may know, for example, that the stimulus intends to create or save three million jobs, but ask them to explain how, and only the most-informed can provide the answer.
The stimulus is about real people and real jobs, a weary and uncertain future for nearly all Americans. The debate about its merit, at least with regard to the general public, should not rest on questions like, "How shovel-ready is this project really?" and "How will bailing out this bank impact inflation?" It should be simpler, more concrete, more real. The administration cannot underestimate the scores of smart, well-read, well-informed Americans who have justifiable difficulty with economic concepts, with relating infrastructure projects to home foreclosures, to credit markets and unemployment numbers. If the president is going to win this argument, then he needs the public to understand his vision.
For that, the public needs a better message.