07/28/2012 05:49 pm ET | Updated Sep 27, 2012

With a Small Tweak, Obama Can Win the "Belt-Tightening" Argument

Economic messaging profoundly impacts economic policy. Although right-wing, Ayn Rand- Bush-Romney-Ryan policies have failed miserably, they continue to win the messaging, providing psychological succor as we hurtle headlong into economic decline.

One particularly effective bromide has been that "tax cuts pay for themselves." Although Ronald Reagan said that, he did not seem really to believe it, as he enacted many tax hikes during his tenure to stem the growing deficits his cuts produced. (And, no, the deficits were not due to Democrat spending, as Reagan's budget proposals and the actual total budgets passed differed in aggregate by less than one percent).

During the Great Recession, the right-wing has seized upon the deficits -- caused largely by the recession itself, the unfunded wars they lied us into, an unfunded Medicare benefit and that "tax cuts pay for themselves" nonsense that Bush adopted -- to press for radical cuts to national investments and spending.

The current economic nostrum has been, "

the Bush Recession has forced everyone to tighten their belts. When the American people have to tighten their belts, government has to tighten its belt too."

That this, too, is nonsense is best highlighted by right-wing claims that cutting defense spending as required by the law they themselves passed will cost one to two million jobs. Really? I thought they have instructed us that government spending causes us to lose jobs.

Nonetheless, the simplicity and superficial logic of the "belt-tightening" analogy has been quite powerful psychologically, an impenetrable barrier to discussion of pragmatic economic policies.

With a small tweak, however, the president can seize the analogy and use it to breach that barrier to pragmatism. It would now read like this:

"The Bush recession has forced the American people to tighten their belts. But, if everyone tightens our belts at the same time, it cuts off blood supply to the legs. So, when people are tightening their belts, government loosens its belt to supply oxygen and nutrients to the legs that keep our economy moving, by investing in such items as roads and bridges. Then, when the American people are able to loosen their belts, government tightens its belt."

[Of course, the right-wing will say, "but government never tightens its belt." To that, just say that that is certainly true of Republicans, but not Democrats and point to President Clinton's surpluses. They won't keep that one up for very long.]

Winning the messaging war is an important achievement. Not only does it provide the clear choice that resonates with peoples' psyches for the election, but it also serves as psychological underpinning for adopting sound economic policies.

That would be the best prescription of all.