Political Animal


June 17, 2011 3:20 PM Why Dems like the GOP’s favorite talking point

By Steve Benen

A couple of days ago, Dave Weigel noted the ever-popular “Track the Meme” game. The right makes it easy.

In this edition, Peggy Noonan wrote on June 3 about President Obama, “Four words: He made it worse.” Two days later, Grover Norquist said, “He made it worse.” Then the Senate Republican Policy Committee quickly began saying, “He made it worse.” At this week’s debate, Mitt Romney said the president “didn’t create the recession, but he made it worse.”

Today, the perpetually-confused House Republican Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) took this a little further.

“As long as ‘progress’ and ‘results’ are code words for ‘historic unemployment’ and ‘economic disaster,’ then the Democrats are right. The economy did indeed take a turn-from bad to worse.

“President Obama might not have started this mess, but his administration’s outrageous spending policies made it much worse.”

Oh, I see, the silliness is evolving. We’ve gone from “worse” to “much worse.”

Fortunately, this isn’t a particularly subjective question. Either the argument has merit or it doesn’t. And in this case, Republicans appear to be stuck in a pre-recession mentality. Here’s a chart, for example, that Jared Bernstein posted the other day, showing average monthly job losses and gains from the quarter the president took office to the most recent quarter of 2011.

Remember, as far as Republicans are concerned, an economy that’s adding jobs is “worse” — or in Jeb Hensarling’s case, “much worse” — than an economy that’s hemorrhaging jobs.

Indeed, in some ways, these odd Republicans are inadvertently making President Obama’s pitch to voters significantly easier. By that I mean, they’re creating a standard for the debate: either conditions have improved since Obama took office or they haven’t. What the right doesn’t understand is that this is the best of all possible standards for Democrats.

If the message to voters is, “The status quo stinks,” that’s a tough message for Dems to argue against. But if the pitch is, “Obama made it worse,” that’s a very easy message for Dems to argue against because it’s demonstrably ridiculous.

Indeed, if this is the central test of 2012, Obama has it easy — all he has to do is point to reality. Four years ago, the economy was shrinking, and now it’s growing. Four years ago, the nation was losing jobs, and now it’s adding jobs. Four years ago, money was going to Wall Street, now Wall Street is paying us back. Four years ago, the American auto industry was on the verge of collapse, and now it’s starting to flourish. Four years ago, the deficit was getting worse, and now it’s getting better.

Republicans, who are usually better at messaging than this, are setting up the easiest of all possible questions. Instead of asking, “Did Obama make things good?” they’re urging voters to ask, “Did Obama make things worse?” Democrats much prefer the latter, making the GOP talking point something of a gift.

If all Obama has to do is prove he didn’t make things worse, he wins.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • bjobotts on June 17, 2011 3:32 PM:

    Way to go Benen...keep describing republican mistakes so they can correct them and use better tactics to beat dems.
    Ironic huh. I'd prefer you just keep showing how Obama has made things better and how repubs are lying rather than tell republicans how to better message so it won't be so easy for dems to put down. lol. Too much insight to publicize.

  • T2 on June 17, 2011 3:42 PM:

    broken record that I am, once again I must point out that the helpful graph Mr. Bernstein put together would show quite nicely on Meet the Press, or NBC Nightly News, or CBS News, or the front page of any major newspaper.
    Too bad it won't be on any.....because that wouldn't be fair and balanced. And the charade goes on.......

  • kanopsis on June 17, 2011 3:47 PM:

    If all Obama has to do is prove he didn’t make things worse, he wins.

    Easier said than done. With the media slanted heavily towards a republican point of view and ignoring almost everything Dems have to say, proving anything is a pretty tall order.

    Just getting the word out seems to be almost impossible. Maybe we need to beat the "the media has a republican bias" drum incessantly, like the repubs did for years. It seems to have actually paid off for them.

  • dcsusie on June 17, 2011 3:49 PM:

    Obama can point to reality, but it won't matter for people who don't want to believe- (can you say 'birther?)- my father-in-law was an early verision of the Tea Party-ites - once he had an idea in his head, a neutron bomb would not have dislodged it. I am a bit encouraged by how the birther stuff seems to have died down at this point, and if the Republithugs remain in disarray and we get at least some glimmer of employment growth, I still think Obama's re-election is likely, but I sure would not be thinking in terms of 'all he has to do is .....'

  • Chesire11 on June 17, 2011 3:50 PM:

    Once again Democrats miss the point by focusing on reality rather than perceptions. From the point of view of persuading voters, it doesn't have to be true!

    If the Republican media, candidates and "experts" keep asserting that the economy got worse under Obama, simply pointing to the fact that their claims are demonstrably wrong is insufficient. This is why Dems win arguments but lose elections.

    What the Dems need to do to counter the "things got worse" meme is to point to a sunny future. They point to job losses, the Dems need to point to a golden "morning in America" that's just around the corner. Invoke annecdotes about successful businesses and the success of the GM bailout. Then, when the GOP and the media point out the negative, attack them for being all about "doom and gloom" and not beleiving in America.

    It's simple and it works - the GOP has done it to us about a hundred times since 1980.

  • martin on June 17, 2011 3:55 PM:

    Obama has it easy — all he has to do is point to reality.
    On what planet?

  • c u n d gulag on June 17, 2011 3:57 PM:

    I would bet that more Independents have a pair of 3-D glasses nearby, than 'reality glasses' to see the charts.

  • NHCt on June 17, 2011 4:00 PM:

    It's not so much a pre-recession mindset as a pre-2012 mindset. The entire GOP attack now seems predicated on the current sluggish economy being what we've got a year from now. That might very well be the case, but it's still a gamble, because if May proves to be a blip rather than a sign that the recovery has once again stalled, Obama will be nicely positioned to Morning in America the hell out his opponent. Watching Romney in particular strut around New Hampshire like he had already won the election belies the GOP's current state of overconfidence. More than the message, this could prove advantageous to Obama as once again, the Republicans underestimate him.

  • Doctor Biobrain on June 17, 2011 4:18 PM:

    For all the people who insist that the game is stacked against us and voters will never hear that Obama made things better, could you please explain this?

    Respondents were asked a good question:

    “How responsible is President Obama and his administration’s policies for the country’s current economic conditions?”

    Just 10% said Obama is “solely responsible,” and 24% said he’s “mainly responsible.” Nearly half the country (48%) believes the president is “only somewhat responsible,” while 16% consider him not responsible for economic conditions at all. These results are roughly the same as they were last fall, before the midterms.

    That was reported just yesterday at this very blog. It went on to note that this number has stayed steady since the mid-terms and that far more people blame Bush for our problems, in a higher number than they did last Fall.

    Not that these are the same issues, but it seems quite clear that the majority of voters are not being swayed by Republican lies. So could we finally put a stake through the meme that says we're always losing the messaging war?

    Republicans have thrown everything they've got against Obama for three whole years, yet he remains the most popular politician in the country. Surely we're doing something right. And as much as I think there's room for improvement, I think it needs to be done on our end. We didn't need Obama and Democratic Leaders to expose the truth about Bush. We did it ourselves. Maybe if we had fewer people taking shots at Obama and more taking shots at Republicans, we'd be even better off than we are.

  • cmdicely on June 17, 2011 4:19 PM:

    Remember, as far as Republicans are concerned, an economy that’s adding jobs is “worse” — or in Jeb Hensarling’s case, “much worse” — than an economy that’s hemorrhaging jobs.

    From the perspective of most people living in it, the economy now is worse. Sure, its not getting worse at the pace that it was when Obama took office, but the duration for which things have been bad itself makes things worse.

    One can argue over whether the problem is that the Administration has pursued the wrong course or whether it is that Congress has prevented the Administration from doing as much of the right things as are necessary to generate a real recovery that reaches most people, or whether its nobody's fault because the economic inertia was so great that no one could have made things better in the time available (or whether all three of those are factors in some combination), but if you try to argue that things really are better, that's a losing argument, both politically and substantively. The pace of monthly job gains or losses isn't the touchstone for the present economic circumstances, its an indicator of the current rate of change of one particular aspect of the economy.

  • Ron Byers on June 17, 2011 4:20 PM:

    If all Obama has to do is prove he didn’t make things worse, he wins.

    Not that easy unless Democrats are pushing hard. Lately the only thing the Democrats seem to have been pushing hard involves Weiner's weener. It seems unlikely that the Democratic leadership can arouse itself to point out the truth of the Republican lie.

  • square1 on June 17, 2011 4:22 PM:

    Once again, the Republicans have a story; a narrative to explain economic events. And Democrats have charts.

    The Republican story is simple. There was a financial services crash in 2008. In response, the Obama administration pushed a bloated "stimulus" package that increased the deficit, but "redistributed" money from the private sector, preventing the private sector from rebounding, costing jobs and making the economy worse.

    The GOP story may be wrong, on both facts and economic logic, but the party backs up their story with policy: The GOP says that we need smaller government, less regulation and lower taxes and they consistently ask for smaller government, less regulation, and lower taxes.

    In contrast, the Democratic message is all over the map.

    The Democrats COULD, in theory, have a similarly simple story: Since the Great Depression the United States has enjoyed steady growth, a healthy middle class, and a largely crisis-free financial services industry. Then excessive deregulation and tax cuts caused the destruction of the middle class, destabilized the economy, and led to the 2008 crash. In response, the federal government should increase regulation of Wall Street, restore progressive income taxes, and temporarily spend more in order to compensate for the loss of spending at the state levels and in the private sector.

    That SHOULD be the Democratic story. Instead, Democrats eagerly embrace deficit reduction, reluctantly embrace Wall Street regulation, and extend the Bush tax cuts.

    As Anthony Weiner said about first responders, you vote in favor of something if you believe it’s the right thing. If you believe that tax cuts create jobs then support tax cuts. If you believe that tax cuts and spending cuts will kill jobs then oppose tax cuts and spending cuts. If you believe that tax cuts and spending cuts will create jobs then support tax cuts and spending cuts.

    But don't oppose the Bush tax cuts and then take credit for their stimulative effect when you extend them. And don't call for stimulus spending and then take credit for "deficit-reducing" spending cuts when the GOP forces them upon you.

    For the love of God, if you believe that we need another $1T to reduce unemployment to 4% then just say that and let me, the voter, worry about why the Republicans won't go along with it.

  • Okie on June 17, 2011 4:24 PM:

    "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?

    Yes. Much better.

  • Mike on June 17, 2011 4:29 PM:

    "If all Obama has to do is prove he didn’t make things worse, he wins."

    Then why isn't he?

    Sadly, the truth doesn't matter. What matters is what people believe. If people keep believing what Republicans say, Democrats are in trouble. And all indications are that people DO believe Republicans.

    Democrats need to combat this. Unfortunately, they're not.

  • JMG on June 17, 2011 4:31 PM:

    I agree with square1. The Democrats will "compromise" by screwing their core constituencies, get nothing in return, and then run on the ever-popular, "But they're worse!" platform.
    It will be a disaster for the country, but Obama and the Democrats thoroughly deserve the beating they're going to take next year. Only then, maybe, can the corporatists be thrown the hell out of the party and we can start over.

  • captain obvious on June 17, 2011 4:38 PM:

    Oh, fer chrissakes...

    IF you were dealing with reasonable, thinking people, 'REALITY' would matter. You're not. You're dealing with people who have a visceral hatred of a blackie lib in the White House. They've gone over to the Dark Side, and will stay there.

  • Upper West on June 17, 2011 4:40 PM:

    I have tried this jobs argument with right wingers. Their response is that the unemployment rate is up. (7.6% in January '09 to 9.1% now).

    There needs to be a short, clear response to that.

  • Chesire11 on June 17, 2011 4:41 PM:

    Just to be clear, I'm not suggesting that Obama should respond to Republican claims that "things have gotten worse" under Obama by arguing that they have gotten better. Although this is demonstrably true, it defies the pain being felt by a large number of Americans. At best, it would come across as callous at worst a lie.

    What I am arguing is that the Obama campaig needs to talk endlessly about inevitable prosperity that is already on its way. American voters like and reward candidates who talk happy talk, regardless of how delusional it may be and will punish those who come across as negative.

  • Ron Byers on June 17, 2011 4:55 PM:

    Are things better now than they were 2 years ago. I don't know. I am still supporting 2 adult children. One of them lost his job and then his house. The other hasn't had a real chance to get started with her life. I think there are millions like me. Most of them have it much worse.

    I am sick to death of Democrats not focusing like a laserbeam on jobs, jobs, jobs. As it was famously put years ago, "its the economy, stupid."

  • cmdicely on June 17, 2011 5:00 PM:

    Just to be clear, I'm not suggesting that Obama should respond to Republican claims that "things have gotten worse" under Obama by arguing that they have gotten better. Although this is demonstrably true

    No, its not.

    "Better" is subjective, so it can never be "demonstrably true" that the economy is "better". There are measures that are better (e.g., monthly change in employment) and measures that are worse (e.g., headline unemployment rate), but those measures are each, at best, a distant and indirect way of getting at how the economy impacts actual people.

    It is easy to assume that because something is a commonly cited, easy-to-look-up, simple numerical measure of some aspect of the economy that it is on its own equivalent to the "state of the economy" such that that measure being higher (or lower, depending on the measure) is equivalent to the economy being "better". But its wrong, no matter whether the measure is headline unemployment rate, weekly change in total seasonally adjusted non-farm employment, annualized GDP growth rate, or anything else.

  • Texas Aggie on June 17, 2011 5:01 PM:

    This is a minor point because everyone else has made the major point that perceptions matter to the majority of the American public, not reality, but look at the heading of the chart. There is no such word as "lossed." The word is "lost." This kind of thing we expect of the TP's, not an educated blogger.

  • andrew on June 17, 2011 5:09 PM:

    "Lossed?" Update that chart, Benen. Are there no editors or proofreaders in the house?

  • Doctor Biobrain on June 17, 2011 6:24 PM:

    "That SHOULD be the Democratic story. Instead, Democrats eagerly embrace deficit reduction, reluctantly embrace Wall Street regulation, and extend the Bush tax cuts."

    Square, you'd have much more credibility on this issue if you'd bother reading the ACTUAL Democratic response, rather than the one you invented for them. The reality is that Obama has been repeatedly talking about investing in education, infrastructure, and research, and only extended the tax cuts because we got a LOT out of it; including the repeal of DADT. And we're now going to let the Bush tax cuts expire as soon as they do. And you'd know that if you bothered listening to Obama for once.

    Why do you ignore this? I can understand people who think Obama's lying with his liberal rhetoric, but anyone who thinks he's not giving a liberal narrative is absolutely incorrect. And if the people in his own party can't see this, it's understandable if others don't either.

  • chi res on June 17, 2011 7:28 PM:


    Trying to get square to think or write objectively about Obama is like trying to get a drunk to decide he's had too much to drink. He's probably an old Firebagger for Edwards who still can't believe the black guy blew his pretty boy out of the water.

  • exlibra on June 17, 2011 7:28 PM:

    Say what you will about the old-time economists (like Krugman, for example), but they do seem to know their English. Unlike the whippersnappers like Bernstein. "Lossed jobs", indeed! Add a smudge or two and you'd think you had a Captcha challenge :)

    'AND pposea. The sea of opposition's lies?

  • square1 on June 17, 2011 8:28 PM:

    Blah, blah, blah, Dr. Biobrain.

    From the 2011 SOTU:

    "But now that the worst of the recession is over, we have to confront the fact that our government spends more than it takes in. That is not sustainable. Every day, families sacrifice to live within their means. They deserve a government that does the same. So tonight, I am proposing that starting this year, we freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years. This would reduce the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade, and will bring discretionary spending to the lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was president."

    You are absolutely correct. Obama talks repeatedly about investing in education, infrastructure, and research...except when he is proposing to cut or freeze spending in those areas.

    Part of the problem is that Obama's pattern of premature capitulation makes any attempt to divine Obama's "actual position" to be total speculation. For example, Obama unilaterally called for a wage freeze on federal workers. Was that because he personally thought that it was good policy? Did he think it would help the economy grow or create jobs? Or did he think it would hurt the economy, but was a smart political tradeoff?

    Or take the Bush tax cut extension. Democrats could have simply let all the tax cuts lapse. Or Democrats could have extended the tax cuts for the middle class. If, in September of 2010, Democrats had put up a vote to extend the tax cuts only for incomes

    So, should we take Obama's claim at face values when he says that he really wants to raise taxes on incomes >$250k? It is hard to do so when there was a golden opportunity to pass a bill to implement Obama's stated tax policy preference and Obama did not push for it.

  • Forrest_Leeson on June 17, 2011 10:46 PM:

    "If all Obama has to do is prove he didn’t make things worse, he wins."

    Except that the last of the ARRA is being spent right now, and since a) nothing else is propping up the economy, and b) nothing else is going to prop up the economy, the 2008 job-loss curve is going to return.

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  • Perspecticus on June 18, 2011 8:47 AM:

    Not that they shouldn't try, but even if dem Dems could conduct a disciplined, coordinated message, and even if they could get anybody in the MSM to cover that effort, the next main problem is saying "Obama failed," is light years easier and more understandable than explaining why he did not fail.