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Framing the Economic Crisis: Bailout or Rescue Plan?

How critical is framing to effectively communicating about complex policy problems, especially under conditions of uncertainty? Just take a look at the debate over the economic crisis.

As I noted last week, the term “bailout” has locked in a specific framing of the issue that inflames populist anger and caters to House Republicans’ efforts to exploit the situation for political gain. The “bailout” triggers thoughts of saving irresponsible wealthy bankers who got greedy, whereas economists view the problem more along the lines of jump starting an economy that is collectively a stuttering engine. Figuring out the language that communicates this expert view is the first step in reformulating communication strategy on the economic crisis.

Appearing this week on PBS Bill Moyers’ Journal, University of Pennsylvania communication scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson discussed in detail the relevance of framing to the debate.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:Language does our thinking for us. When the public doesn’t have any sense about what’s really going on, this is very confusing and very complicated. Framing matters. If this is described as a taxpayer bailout of Wall Street, it’s not popular. If it’s described as taxpayer investing in the well-being of the economy, it’s far more a more positive. Now.

BILL MOYERS:Was that done?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:The first frame that was offered by the Bush Administration was not strong enough in favor of the bill. And as a result, the press picked up the language that you used, the language of bailout.

BILL MOYERS:Of Wall Street?


BILL MOYERS:The greedy.


BILL MOYERS:All right.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:So, my money to Wall Street in a bailout. What is benefiting me there? Where’s the positive? When President Bush came forward with his second speech, he’s beginning to frame it as a rescue plan. But we’re not that clear that the rescue plan is for the economy and consumers. The rescue plan is still being cast as Wall Street. You still don’t see a lot of reason that you’d want to rescue Wall Street.

The person who ultimately cast this most effectively as something the public ought to support, and the difference in polling is largely of framing, is Warren Buffet, who finds a way to say that this really is going to affect everyone. This is an economic Pearl Harbor.

WARREN BUFFETT:We have a terrific economy. It’s like a great athlete that’s having a cardiac arrest, you know. And it’s flat on the floor and the paramedics have arrived and they shouldn’t argue about whether they put the resuscitation a quarter of an inch this way or a quarter of an inch that way or they shouldn’t start criticizing the patient because he didn’t have blood pressure tests or something like that. They should do what’s needed night now. And I think they will. I think Congress will do the right thing.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:If you had to look around and say who’s got the credibility? Who has very wide trust, and who can talk in the English language that’s intelligible? Warren Buffet is the answer. And he was putting money into a rescue effort of his own, in the interests, I believe, of making large amounts of money.


KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:Hence you’re reassured by it. This-

BILL MOYERS:Reassured because?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:Because this billionaire is putting his money in, saying, “I don’t put money into things that I’m not going to make money at. I’m not in the business of a bailout,” essentially, is what he’s saying. “I’m investing. This economy is going to turn around, and I see it as a good investment.” And he’s standing behind the plan. He’s and he’s personable, he’s friendly, his examples are concrete. He’s speaking the English language. And he’s got money in the game. The best communicator for this plan was Warren Buffet….

…KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:Framing matters. If you buy the frame of rescue plan for the economy, for Main Street. And necessarily, because this is an economic Pearl Harbor. And we, the country, are the economy is like that patient in cardiac arrest. This is Warren Buffet then we have to act not because we’re acting for Wall Street, but because we’re acting for us. Framing matters. And you come back to the question, what about that $150 billion.

BILL MOYERS:Added this week.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:That’s tacked on? One frame of that is that this is pork. One is these are necessarily tax investments. Another is, this is bribery, in order to get those people to support that bill. And we, again, have a contest over framing. But the cost just went up $150 billion in an economy that didn’t have the money to afford the $700 billion to start with, but is being told it has to spend it, or things are going to get a lot worse.And then, you have these candidates come in, all four of them, and they won’t answer the questions. Does this change your plans at all? And they essentially say, “Oh, no. Everything’s fine. We’re gonna cut taxes. We’re gonna increase spending.” Of course, not as much as they will. “We’re actually revenue neutral.”

Well, no, they’re not. And nobody who’s looked at their plans for taxing and spending believes it. It’s a real disconnect between what’s happening in the real world and what these four candidates have said. Two more debates. I hope they get those questions again. I hope somebody tells us the truth. And the danger is, if somebody does, it will be, you know, the kind of circumstance that, you know, Walter Mondale faced in 1984. You say, “I’m gonna raise taxes,” and people say not “I’m not gonna vote for you.”

Or you may have a circumstance in which they don’t tell the truth. That’s “Read my lips: No new taxes.” George Herbert Walker Bush did increase taxes. That’s Bill Clinton saying “tax cut for the middle class.” He never delivered that. Neither one of them thought they responsibility could. Both of them, or their parties, were penalized.

The idea of forgery resonates more than ever today in a culture in which “the open exchange of ideas has been rebranded as piracy.” 

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