For Barack Obama, Stimulus Effort a Communications Catastrophe

By failing to sell plan's benefits and set the tone and language of debate, president nearly blew it.


Then he should have forced Republicans (and Democrats) to agree with these rules.

Having framed the issue on his terms, he would have controlled the conversation. He could justify millions for resodding the Mall if that expenditure met the agreed-upon criteria. Instead he had to defend every odd-sounding line in the bill because he never explained what success should look like and how any government plan should get us there.

3. He let his so-called friends and his enemies control the language. Hank Paulson learned quickly the risks of not defining the terms of the debate. Call it a bailout and people are not likely to accept it willingly. And once the wrong word is in the media and public lexicon, it is very tough to put the genie back in the bottle.

Obama had the right words—recovery package—but he missed his opportunity to infuse them into the debate. He let Speaker Pelosi lead the initial charge in her own words. He let the Republicans criticize in their own words. And very quickly, this was a "stimulus" plan and a "spending" plan rather than a "recovery package." Furthermore, this allowed the conversation, for a while, actually to center upon the name of the bill rather than what was in it. And once you're wasting time talking about what to call an issue instead of the issue itself, you're only making an already uphill battle that much steeper.

Often we see that companies and associations start talking about an issue only after it has been defined for them. They start using the words and terminology handed to them, either by their opponents or the media, without fully understanding just how much of an impact that language can have on their cause. In those cases, it is often extremely difficult to rename a problem. Once the problem is named and the media echo chamber picks it up, the gel is set. In this case, Obama had an opportunity to control the conversation from the start—but he seems to have missed it.

This is new territory for the Obama team. The campaign was never really about issues—it was about the proper framing of issues and controlling how the candidates, and by extension the American people, talked about them. And it certainly wasn't about selling specific policy ideas. In many ways, selling specific policies is much harder. The dirty task of actual governance doesn't lend itself to the oratorical flourishes of a well-crafted piece of prose. In this game, it's all about using the power of the bully pulpit and the news media to set the terms and language of the debate before the debate even begins. The big question is whether this Great Communicator can do it.