The Big Idea

Obama’s Message Deficit

Why he needs an economic slogan.

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Barack Obama

Barack Obama has a range of sensible economic policies. He has a team of prudent advisers with a centrist, pro-trade cast. He may even have some grasp of why the American financial system collapsed last week.

What Obama doesn’t have, so far, is an economic message. He’s missing a story about what’s gone wrong with the American economy and how to fix it. He hasn’t managed to present his various proposals on taxes, health care, energy, housing foreclosures, and the rest in a way that resonates with voters. He hasn’t emphasized a few signature policies to let us know what his top priorities are. He hasn’t got a decent slogan. If you go to the economy section on Obama’s Web site, the banner that greets you proclaims, “Responsible Tax Cuts for Ordinary Americans.” It’s accompanied by an image of two piggy banks, a small one labeled “Taxes” and a big one labeled “Savings.” The fat piggie is overflowing with pennies. What, exactly, is the concept here? That we should save less to feed the tax piglet?

The ability to organize economic issues around a simple, lucid theme was a talent of our two most successful recent presidents. Ronald Reagan offered an overarching narrative about how government had come to play too large a role in the economy. His most famous slogans—”Get the government off our backs,” “Morning again in America,” “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”—all got at his notion of unshackling enterprise from its bureaucratic fetters to restore growth. Bill Clinton had a different tale about how ordinary Americans—people who work hard and play by the rules—were falling behind. His catchphrases—”Putting people first,” “It’s the economy, stupid,” “Building a bridge to the 21st century”—similarly supported the policy changes he thought would help the struggling middle class.

For examples of candidates who weren’t good at this, you need look no further than Al Gore and John Kerry. Burdened by the need to separate himself from Clinton toward the end of the ‘90s boom, Gore delivered a message that Michael Kinsley characterized as, “You’ve never had it so good, and I’m mad as hell about it.” Kerry took an equally incongruous populist tack in 2004, fulminating unconvincingly about how he’d prevent corporations from shipping jobs overseas.

Barack Obama is a more persuasive messenger, but his economic message has yet to transcend the Gore-Kerry muddle. Obama lacks any compelling story line about why unemployment, inflation, and inequality are rising, why the middle class is stagnating, or why the financial system has stopped working. His thematic framing is both too broad and not proprietary enough. His message of change and post-partisanship blurs together dissatisfaction with the economy, the war in Iraq, President Bush, special-interest politics, and the assorted depredations of “Washington.” John McCain can wear these clothes nearly as easily as Obama can. And Obama’s lack of a resonant economic message has left too much space in the political discourse for freak-show debates about lipstick and moose hunting.

Why has Obama not done a better job conveying his approach to reordering the economy? Part of the difficulty lies with the skills of the people who do and don’t work for him. Thus far, the Obamans have played an astonishingly good ground game. But I think it’s fair to say that the campaign’s Chicago-based high command  is stronger on campaign mechanics than message. In Chicago, you don’t win a mayoral race with grand ideas. You focus on quality-of-life issues and get voters to the polling place on Election Day. Absent from Obama’s inner circle is the Democrat A-team most skilled at deploying a thematic message—people like Paul Begala, James Carville, Gene Sperling, and Bruce Reed. All of them worked for the last Democratic president, and as a result were on Hillary Clinton’s side in the primaries. Some of them are helping Obama, but none is close to him.

The larger challenge is the candidate’s cool, cerebral style. Reasoning is a fine quality in a decision-maker and bodes well for an Obama presidency, if he gets to have one. But when campaigning, it’s helpful to be a passionate storyteller as well. Alas, Obama doesn’t seem to think in the anecdotal, visceral terms that nonwonks relate to. His relationship to economic ideas is largely analytic. As David Leonhardt has argued, Obama’s understanding reflects a University of Chicago synthesis of neoclassical free-market thinking with behavioral economics. Obama’s top economic advisers, Jason Furman and Austan Goolsbee, reflect his scholarly sophistication. What they don’t do is check his tendency to circle around a point instead of making it crisply and then hammering it home. As we say in journalism, Obama likes to bury his lede.

What would such a stronger Democratic economic message look like? There may be a preview of it in Obama’s new two-minute ad, which puts the larger problem in Clinton-esque terms: “The truth is that while you’ve been living up to your responsibilities, Washington has not.” But Obama still has a long way to go in explaining where the American faith in broadly shared prosperity got lost, and how his policies could bring it back. His proposals to reallocate the tax burden, invest in infrastructure, decouple health insurance from employment, and transition to renewable resources are components of a coherent effort to renew the American dream. Now it’s time for him to frame them that way.

A version of this article also appears in this week’s issue of Newsweek.