More than passing historic legislation, Obama is pushing hard to change how Americans talk about success and failure in the economy.
The passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will go down in history as one of the boldest efforts to push past the voices of dissent and invest public resources in the Middle Class. But beyond the stunning scale of his legislation, President Obama is working hard to reframe how we talk and think about the most fundamental idea in American culture: economic success.
One of the best ways to see Obama's reframing in action are the transcripts of his Weekly Addresses.
In this week's address, after lauding Congress for passing his legislation, Obama defines in clear and specific terms what he means by 'success' in the context of the debate on the economy (emphasis added):
For our plan to succeed, we must stabilize, repair, and reform our banking system, and get credit flowing again to families and businesses.
We must write and enforce new rules of the road, to stop unscrupulous speculators from undermining our economy ever again.
We must stem the spread of foreclosures and do everything we can to help responsible homeowners stay in their homes.
And in the weeks ahead, I will submit a proposal for the federal budget that will begin to restore the discipline these challenging times demand. Our debt has doubled over the past eight years, and we’ve inherited a trillion-dollar deficit – which we must add to in the short term in order to jumpstart our sick economy. But our long-term economic growth demands that we tame our burgeoning federal deficit; that we invest in the things we need, and dispense with the things we don’t. This is a challenging agenda, but one we can and will achieve. (link)
When extracting a definition from political rhetoric, it is often helpful to divide the longer definition into subheadings to see how the concept breaks down.
Obama divides economic "success" into four (4) related tracks:
In talking about success in the credit markets, Obama defines credit in terms of water "flowing," picking up on the well accepted idea that the cash is "frozen" inside lending institutions and needs to be "unfrozen" for the markets to function again. In addition to the metaphor of [credit] as [water], however, Obama uses the phrase "stabilize, repair, and reform" on which a great deal depends. We will probably hear that phrase a great deal this week, as it establishes a logic using alliteration--a sure sign of an intentional framing effort. But what does "stabilize, repair, and reform" do to our thinking about banks?
The idea that a credit market is unstable, broken, and out of control is a departure that puts Americans in a new conversation. Under a Republican dominated debate--the past 8-years or so--the banking system was described in terms of wealth, capital, and cash, but nothing more. In that language, which dominated when the crisis banking broke in the last weeks of the Bush administration, the goal was also to "unfreeze" credit, but there was never any sense that strong, lasting action from outside the banking system was required to restore it. Credit, in the Republican idea of things, is just a river flowing in nature--there are no built structures. With Obama's new language, that sense has changed. He is beginning to talk about the build structures that make the flow of credit possible--a canal rather than a river, perhaps. We also begin to see the signs of repair going up around the structures the way scaffolds appear around a building.
A similar image begins to come into focus when Obama talks about the "rules of the road," a metaphor for market regulation.
Republicans talked only about regulation in the context of attacking the idea, advancing a claim that capitalism only works if there are no rules. In that logic, rules are like hurdles--boulders put in the river that impede the flow. With his new language, Obama is unfolding a metaphor that defines markets in terms of roads and highways.
When we talk about roads and highways, nobody would disagree that the best way to make sure we can drive from one place to another and return home safely is to have rules of the road that make sense and that everybody observes. We also need a system to enforce those rules. As much as each of us may resent the traffic cop when she is writing us a speeding ticket for $250 and making us late for our father's birthday party (ehem), we understand and agree that the alternative is a system of deadly mayhem that no longer functions--no longer gets people from point A to point B. And that is how Obama would like Americans to start thinking about the financial markets.
On the issue of housing, the Republican dominated debate only allowed for a conversation about homeowners who took on more than they could chew. Listen to the Republicans of the past 6 months talk about the sub-prime mortgage bubble and inevitably they say that the 'root cause' of the entire financial crisis was low-income first-time home buyers who assumed mortgages they could not afford. In Obama's new language, foreclosure itself is defined as a problem that must be addressed. Obama describes foreclosure as if it is a stain 'spreading' across the country, and encourages Americans to think both about stopping this spreading stain and about responsible home buying as necessary parts of fixing the housing crisis. Stopping the spread of foreclosure is a way to visualize the action that needs to be taken. Stains must be treated to be removed.
Finally, Obama's definition of economic success involves a return to a conversation about "debt," which he links strongly to the idea of investment. This is a major departure from Republican language and logic.
When Republicans dominated the economic discussion, the only federal debt they discussed was spending on domestic programs. According to this logic, all domestic spending was bad. This led the public to conclude that the only way to stem federal debt was to eliminate government programs, such as Social Security, Medicaid, and unemployment. Debt Republicans never talk about includes debt incurred to fund the military, debt incurred to give tax revenue back to the wealthiest 1% of Americans, and debt incurred to protect foreign sources of oil.
Obama introduces a very simple idea--the idea that we must "invest in the things we need"--to begin a national conversation about long-term and short-term, good and bad debt. This new language injects a basic, pragmatic set of question into the debate about federal debt: Is it useful for America in the long run to invest money in the short run? If the answer is "no," Obama tells us, then the debt will be eliminated. More importantly, he is inviting us to begin thinking about federal debt in terms of investing and our social programs not as 'entitlements,' but as a long term portfolio. It may seem simple to think of federal money as investment in a portfolio for the long-term benefit of the nation, but under Republican dogma that dominated the past ten years, it has been impossible to start that conversation about investment.
This brings us to a general, four-part definition of "economic success" being advanced by President Obama:
- credit structures have been rebuilt so they are stable
- market regulation has established clear and enforceable rules of the road
- foreclosures have stopped spreading; responsible home buying has returned
- federal debt has been tied to good investments; bad debt has been minimized
The conversation this definition holds in place is very different from the Republican discussion that was largely confined to talk of cutting taxes, ending programs, and blocking market regulation. With Obama's new framing, we can begin to talk about the economy in ways not heard for almost a century.
In other words, the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment act is a critical first investment in the future of the middle class, but it is also the beginning of a new way of talking and thinking about the economy. To understand what 'change' means from this point forward, we must pay attention not only to the legislation President Obama passes through Congress, but also how he defines the essential terms of the debate.