President Obama’s agenda is a reverse Monet. It looks great when you get up close, but stand back and it’s a mess. This, in large part, explains Democrats’ messaging strategy over the past year. By and large their legislation has been unpopular when viewed as a whole, but zoom in on specific provisions and people’s opinions may change. The strategy, which first found a modicum of success in the healthcare debate, is now being contemplated in a final attempt to sell the stimulus before the midterm elections. It won’t work.
It has been interesting to see the evolution of Democrats’ messaging strategy over the past two years. In 2008 they predominantly focused on big ideas. America was fed up with Washington, so themes of empowerment like “Yes we can” and words of inspiration like “hope” were exactly what people wanted to hear. With healthcare the once-mighty Obama messaging machine broke down. It turned out that everyone wanted reform, but very few people could agree on what those reforms should look like. Worse, from the Obama administration’s perspective, a majority of people agreed that Democrats’ brand of reform wasn’t what they had in mind.
Rather than stick to selling comprehensive healthcare reform, Democrats switched their focus to personal stories and individual portions of the bill. As a recently leaked presentation to Democratic candidates recommends, “[u]se personal stories--coupled with clear, simple descriptions of the how the law benefits people at the individual level.” Instead of broad statements about lowering premiums, we were directed to a clause that prohibits discriminating against those with preexisting conditions. Instead of lowering the cost curve, we were shown a provision on how kids would be able to stay on their parents plan longer.
By all measures, the attempt to zoom in on particularly favorable portions of the healthcare bill has been an utter flop. A new Associated Press poll finds that the bill’s approval ratings are still upside down, with 40 percent saying they oppose the law and 30 percent saying they favor. The poll also reveals the flaws in Democrats’ messaging strategy. Though slim majorities could correctly answer questions about the bill, two thirds or more were uncertain about their responses on eight of nine core provisions of the legislation. As Stanford professor Jon Krosnic, who directed the poll, said, “[a]lthough the president and others have done a great deal to educate people about what is in the bill, the process has not been particularly successful.”
Apparently undeterred by their failures some liberal pundits are encouraging the Obama administration to follow a similar “zoom in” strategy when it comes to another unpopular piece of legislation--the stimulus. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Chris Van Hollen said, “It is important to localize it. Because it’s important to show people what the impact will be in specific communities when you yank a contract.”
In theory it sounds like a good idea. Democrats weren’t going to win a debate about the success of the stimulus overall. Voters’ number one concern is jobs, and the stimulus failed to budge the unemployment needle enough to make for a strong election year pitch. Voters’ second biggest concern is government spending, in large part because of the $832 billion stimulus bill. So instead of talking about the bill as a whole you focus in on the benefits being seen in individual districts.
In practice it may be a tougher sell. A new Labor Department report found that 27 states reported higher unemployment rates in August. That is up from the 14 that saw an increase in July. Thirteen states had jobless rates above 10 percent. Twelve states had significant declines in nonfarm payroll employment, while just one saw an increase. Moreover, an examination by researcher Veronique de Rugy revealed that the stimulus was poorly targeted at the areas that needed it the most. She concluded that,
With a few exceptions, the data show little correlation between the level of unemployment and stimulus spending. In fact, the opposite is true. The federal government has given far fewer stimulus dollars to states with high unemployment than it has to states with low unemployment.
For instance, Nevada, with the nation’s worst unemployment rate--14.3 percent--received a per capita stimulus of $561.55, while North Dakota, enjoying the lowest unemployment rate, received $1,059.95 per capita.
Given the dismal numbers I’m not exactly sure where Van Hollen can successfully “localize” the stimulus. We’ve already seen the blowback from touting an individual success while the whole is still suffering. When the unemployment rate is still growing people do not want to hear about how many jobs were created or saved through some random project. They expected more than a new bridge here, and a new wind turbine there. For better or worse they expected a wholesale improvement in our economy. It didn’t happen. Just as with healthcare before it, no amount of magnification can save the fact that they fell short of promises.
It seems that regardless of distance, Democrats’ agenda is no piece of art, and Obama is certainly no Monet.