‘Doom’ talk scored as ‘not presidential’

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ANALYSIS:

From crisis to catastrophe. Off a cliff. Dark, darker, darkest. Mortal danger of absolute collapse. Armageddon.

President Obama and top Democrats on Capitol Hill are deploying these and other stark predictions of doom and gloom to push through their economic-stimulus package. In terms not heard in Washington since the late 1970s under President Jimmy Carter’s watch, the new president has sought to terrify Americans into supporting the $800 billion-plus bailout bill.

While President Bush was accused shortly after taking office in 2001 of “talking down the economy” - and for saying the economy was “slowing down” - Mr. Obama is using ever-heightening hyperbole to hammer home his message. But the strategy brings great risk for the “Yes, We Can” man, who just three weeks ago told America in his inaugural address that despite “a sapping of confidence across our land,” his election meant Americans had “chosen hope over fear.”

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“Mr. Hope has to be careful not to become Dr. Doom,” said Frank Luntz, a political consultant and author of the book “Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear.”

“The danger for him is using the Jimmy Carter malaise rhetoric, particularly for Mr. Obama, who was elected because people thought he was the solution. There’s only so much negativity they will tolerate from him before they will feel betrayed,” Mr. Luntz said.

Brad Blakeman, a senior aide to Mr. Bush from 2001 to 2004, said the new president’s language is immature.

“It’s not presidential. An American leader needs to be hopeful and optimistic - and truthful. Everything he says is parsed; everything he says is searched for deep meaning. When he goes to ‘DefCon 5’ on the economy and says that we’re on the brink of catastrophe, it’s absolutely insane.”

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With his fiery rhetoric, the new president runs the risk of terrifying consumers and investors, which could depress the economy even further. While the economy is bad, it is a far cry from Great Depression levels, when as many as 30 percent of Americans were unemployed, compared with the 7.6 percent now.

Every president must walk a rhetorical tightrope when talking about the economy, a lesson Mr. Bush learned quickly, being bashed just after taking office for delivering somber news. The United States was just entering a mild recession - it had been in one, it turns out, for about nine months - and the new president said so.

Liberals went berserk.

“Every time we turn around, this guy is bad-mouthing the economy. Is that lifting our spirit or dumping on it in order to sell his tax cut?” liberal comentator Bill Press said on CNN. Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter, in an article headlined “Thanks Ever So Much, President Poor-Mouth,” said, “Even if Bush turns out to be right in his predictions of gloom, that doesn’t mean he was right to make them.” The New York Times lectured Mr. Bush, saying that presidents were supposed to be “cheerleaders for the nation’s economy.”

But Mr. Bush tried that, too. As the United States recovered from the economic devastation caused by the 9/11 attacks, the president constantly talked up the economy, asserting that the American work force could compete with any in the world, and he assured Americans that happy days were right around the corner. Even as the currrent recession took hold, he continued to portray the nation’s future in optimistic tones.

For all his effort, he was portrayed as a Pollyannish rube whose naivete so clouded his vision that he could not see the stark reality of the economic situation. How else to explain his optimism in the face of $4-a-gallon gas or exploding unemployment, or presidential statements a year ago, such as “I don’t think we’re headed to a recession, but no question we’re in a slowdown.”

Mr. Obama has gone much further than that. Just Friday, Mr. Obama said a report that 600,000 jobs were lost in January meant “it’s getting worse, not getting better. … Although we had a terrible year with respect to jobs last year, the problem is accelerating, not decelerating.” Last week he said, “A failure to act, and act now, will turn crisis into a catastrophe.”

But he isn’t the only Democrat ramping up the rhetoric while talking down the economy. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said last month that our economy “is dark, darker, darkest.” Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin said, “This economy is in mortal danger of absolute collapse.” And Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri said of the economic-stimulus bill, “If we don’t pass this thing, it’s Armageddon.”

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