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Obama Says Goodbye This Week, But His Message Hasn't Always Gotten Through

President Obama speaks at the groundbreaking of a road project funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act on June 18, 2010, in Columbus, Ohio.
Amy Sancetta

Even before Barack Obama moved into the White House, he and his team made a choice that made actually selling his policies to the public more difficult.

In December 2008, Obama's economic team gathered in Chicago to map out what would become the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

"A dispute, discussion, something breaks out at that meeting. We haven't even come in yet," said Austan Goolsbee, a professor at the University of Chicago, who was a top economic adviser in the early years of the Obama presidency.

Goolsbee said there were two schools of thought about how to proceed.

"Doing something on the order of magnitude of the problem, which everyone understood is going to be a collection of a whole bunch of things and you're going to have a hard time explaining it" was one option, Goolsbee said.

Or, he said, others argued, " 'Couldn't we just pick one thing and just do that one thing?' And that would be really easy to explain."

The economy was hemorrhaging jobs, and Obama's economic team was afraid the country was on the brink of another Great Depression.

The president chose to go big.

Obama came into the White House eight years ago, hailed as the "Great Communicator" because of his lofty speeches, but as he leaves office — and delivers a farewell address Tuesday night in Chicago — by his own admission, Obama hasn't always been so adept at communicating his policies and achievements. He struggled to make the sell on the Recovery Act (known as the stimulus), the auto bailout and the Affordable Care Act.

The man who will succeed him has chosen a decidedly different path. President-elect Donald Trump has on multiple occasions hyped up announcements by companies that they will add a few thousand or even fewer jobs, declaring victory and getting lots of attention for relatively small wins, as compared with the size of the U.S. economy.

Obama has overseen 75 straight months of job growth. Employers added millions of jobs during the course of his presidency, but Obama hasn't been able to capitalize on that politically as well as his allies would have hoped.

Obama signed the Recovery Act in February 2009. And in the speech he made that day, the challenges of explaining the behemoth $780 billion package were clear.

"Today does mark the beginning of the end," Obama said, "the beginning of what we need to do to create jobs for Americans scrambling in the wake of layoffs."

He talked about the millions of jobs it would "save or create," a metric so squishy it proved hard for Obama to claim credit for it later and made it easy for opponents to criticize the stimulus as a failure. He spent most of the speech talking about "investments."

"Rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, repairing our faulty dams and levees, bringing critical broadband connections to businesses and homes in nearly every community in America," Obama said in what was a long list of projects. "Upgrading mass transit."

But Frank Luntz, who has advised Republicans on messaging, said in an interview with NPR that the word "investment" can sound, for some, like code for big-government spending.

"There was real hostility early on," Luntz said, "a feeling that it's just an expansion of Washington and nobody was going to benefit and everyone was going to get stuck with the tab."

Obama's team overestimated Americans' appetite for stimulus spending, Luntz argued. Republicans in Congress, who never supported the Recovery Act, repeatedly derided it as a "failed trillion-dollar stimulus." In reality, a big chunk of it went to tax cuts — and it helped pull the country out of the biggest recession since the Great Depression.

In Obama's bill-signing speech, the mention of those tax cuts came near the end. "About a third of this package comes in the forms of tax cuts — by the way, the most progressive in our history," said Obama to applause, arguing it would not only spur job creatio, but put "money in the pockets of 95 percent of hard-working families in America."

The way the tax cuts were distributed also limited any public relations benefit. The money just appeared in people's paychecks as a smaller payroll tax deduction.

"Nobody realized, nobody understood and, so, nobody celebrated it," Luntz said. "There's a simple rule in politics: If you don't talk about it, no one knows you did it, and you get no credit for it. And that was the problem with the tax-cut component of Obama's stimulus package."

The tax cut was carefully designed by the Obama administration to target low- and middle-income Americans. But it ultimately had little traction with the public — or with Republicans whom it was intended to help sway.

"At one point in the first year," Goolsbee said, remembering a moment of great frustration, "there's a poll that comes out in which something like 60 percent of the country said that they were sick of the tax increases that had come from the stimulus, when, in fact, 95 percent had gone down."

Goolsbee said that is when he began to realize that reality was relative — something that has truly taken hold in American politics now. "And at that point, you know the president was basically asking the economic team, 'What is wrong with you people?' and I just felt like punching myself," said Goolsbee with a laugh.

Economists widely view the stimulus as having helped the economy avoid disaster. But politically, Obama got none of the credit for the tax cuts and a whole lot of grief for the spending. This was a pattern that would repeat itself throughout his presidency.

As Trump prepares to enter the White House, his communications strategy is one of mass saturation, including rapid-fire tweets on multiple topics. Will that work out better than Obama's cool focus on facts and figures when trying to convince the public? Or as he works to repeal some of Obama's policy achievements, will he have to adopt a different tactic to sell his proposals?

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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