Framing the Stimulus' Impact Will Be the Next Challenge
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
The Obama administration had a rough start to its communication strategy on the stimulus plan, going from no message to a catastrophe frame, only at the last minute shifting to a more effective focus on localized benefits and impacts. If the Stimulus plan was a tough challenge to communicate, framing its success will be even tougher. Measuring impacts will be complex and uncertain, their interpretation will be ideologically driven, and a wide range of groups will be actively working to define its success or failure, including journalists.
At New York magazine, John Heilemann offers an apt diagnosis and prediction:
For two crucial weeks, indeed, the White House communications breakdown was all-encompassing. The administration failed to do the little stuff: deploying persuasive surrogates to campaign for the package on TV. It failed to do the big stuff: hammer the theme that the nation is in crisis, that a depression looms, that political inertia carries grave risks of economic calamity. When Obama talked about the bill, his words and demeanor lacked, to bowdlerize a phrase, the fierce urgency of ... anything. When his team made their case, they focused on process rather than substance, ignoring the imperatives of language, speaking (abstrusely) of "stimulus" or (vaguely) of "recovery" instead of "jobs"--and into that rhetorical vacuum, the Republicans stepped in with "pork."
Then, with public support for the stimulus slipping and the possibility of a filibuster threatening, Obama and his people shifted gears. Suddenly, the economic team was unspooling state-by-state job-creation numbers. Suddenly, the president was warning that inaction could lead to "catastrophe," trashing "criticisms of this plan that frankly echo the very same failed theories that helped lead us into this crisis." There were plans for a prime-time news conference and perhaps an address from the Oval Office.
No doubt all this will help the package overcome the hurdles that remain. No doubt the celebration that ensues when it's signed into law will be loud and triumphal. And let me be clear: I have no doubt that whatever emerges after the House and Senate merge their bills will be better than nothing. But it's still going to be a dog's breakfast--and far from the best thing that Obama could have achieved. Economists don't like it. The left ain't happy with it. The right positively deplores it. All of which would be fine, of course, if the damn thing works.
The question, of course, is how "works" is defined--and that's where the politics kicks in. This time next year, it's altogether plausible that the recession will still be raging. Will the stimulus therefore be seen to have failed? Or as having succeeded in staving off something worse? The greater risk for Obama, however, is that neither of these perceptions will be foremost in voters' minds, but that the stimulus will be recalled as just another partisan Washington goat rodeo that accomplished precious little--at a cost of nearly $1 trillion.
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