Economies of Scale

The Obama administration is finally putting together a roster of spokesmen to defend its economic policies.

Peter Orszag. Click image to expand.
Director of the Office of Management and Budget Peter Orszag 

Good news for President Obama: Americans aren’t tired of him yet. The latest Pew poll shows that Obama fatigue is very low, despite his regular presence on the front page, the op-ed page, prime-time TV, Sunday-morning TV, drive-time radio, talk radio, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and any other forum that will have him. Only about one-third of respondents said they felt they were hearing too much from the president.

White House aides were right. Over the last few weeks, they’ve argued the president was in no immediate danger of overexposure because Americans like him and want to hear what he has to say. What concerned Obama’s advisers was that if Americans did eventually tire of the president, the administration would be without a spokesman on economic policy, since he was the only person who could clearly articulate and defend his plans. The man who was supposed to play a key supporting role, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, was so damaged the president was spending time insisting he wasn’t going to let him go.

That was last week. Now it looks as if the administration has a competent economic B-team. Not only has Geithner’s standing improved, but several other economic advisers have found their voices. It couldn’t have happened at a better time, as the administration prepares to battle over budget priorities with Democrats and Republicans.

The way an administration communicates can seem beside the point. What about the policies? But as Warren Buffett put it recently, even smart policies need to be communicated properly in order to have an impact. One of the president’s key jobs—perhaps the key job—is to persuade both the public and Congress. But he can’t do it alone. And the more speeches and appearances and announcements he makes, the more mundane those events become. A good chorus allows the president to be reserved for crucial moments.

Last weekend, the president had his first Sunday show appearance on Face the Nation. But White House aides weren’t worried about Obama. They were worried about Geithner, who was appearing on the other two network shows. Earlier in the week, his second bank bailout announcement had been well-received. The Dow had gone up, and analysts didn’t pounce as they had after his first bank announcement. If he could make it through the Sunday shows, advisers thought, maybe they could declare a bottom to the falling shares of Geithner.

The treasury secretary made it through, and while he’s not out of the woods yet—a new Fox poll shows Geithner with just a 39 percent approval rating—the White House is feeling a whole lot better about his ability to convey the administration’s economic policies with confidence. Two weeks ago he was practically in the Cabinet secretary’s version of the witness protection program. This week he was ubiquitous in Europe selling the administration’s plans.

Meanwhile, back in the States, this week Budget Director Peter Orszag, who has become a sort of cult favorite, appeared on The Daily Showwith Jon Stewart. Economists Austan Goolsbee and Jared Bernstein are now regulars on the daily cable news networks, mixing actual expertise with sound bites.

The Obama team has its work cut out for itself. While the president’s approval ratings hover around 60 percent and he gets similar marks for his handling of the economy, his economic policies are less popular. Only 51 percent support his stimulus plan, according to the Pew poll, down 7 percent. Only 49 percent approve of his handling of the deficit, according to the Gallup poll, a weakness Republicans are trying mightily to exploit. Congressional Democrats are acting nervously and occasionally defying the president over his tax and spending priorities.

Fortunately for the White House, while its team is coming together, the Republicans are becoming more cacophonous. There’s a gaggle of spokesmen, and some members have different views than the others. Each day they continue their internecine battling is one more day for Obama’s surrogates to polish their message and practice their sound bites.