Obama spreads economic sunshine

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When reviewing speeches, it's interesting to look at word counts, the idea being that the number of times a speaker says a word can reveal the basic meaning of the speech.

In last night's address, the President said "economy" or "economic" 30 times, but never said the word "stimulus." Keeping his focus on specifics, he mentioned "jobs" 19 times, "budgets" 14 times, and "recover" 15 times, but only said the dreaded word "spending" twice. "Wall Street" snuck into his speech twice, "middle class" made its way in once, "earmarks" came in once, and "pork" had nary an appearance. The President said "confidence" seven times, and "deficit" nine times (although he generally attached it to words like "cut" or "pay down"). The same goes for the dreaded t word -- "tax" came into the speech 16 times, usually attached to some version of the word "cut."

Beyond the numbers, however, there emerged a message that was tailor-made for a country that has grown wary of rhetoric and is still stinging from the unregulated billions that recently poured into Wall Street. The President's speech focused on specifics, noting that the stimulus will fund jobs, schools (13 repetitions), health care (19 repetitions), and energy (14 mentions). He repeatedly used familiar images of American life to back up his points, and closed up his speech with true stories of people and towns that illustrated his message.

Overall, the greater theme was one of optimism. Over the past few weeks, the President (and Fed Chairman Bernanke) have painted a dire portrait of the economy, largely in an attempt to spur the passage of the stimulus bill. However, while the dark scenarios pouring out of the executive branch have helped stir Congress to swift action, they have also had the effect of depressing the public. As Japan's "lost decade" demonstrates, consumer optimism is key to any long-term economic boom; to put it bluntly, while a depressed public might stare at the television, it is not likely to buy televisions.

Like previous presidents who had to deal with a major economic crisis, Obama portrayed an idealized America to inspire action in his audience. As in the inaugural speeches of both Ronald Reagan and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President Obama offered a vision of a strong, proud, innovative, and hard working citizenry. His portrayal tapped into elements of how Americans want to see themselves, offering nods that were designed to cut across boundaries of class and politics. This, for example, is why he mentioned "middle class" only once, but said "jobs" 19 times. Similarly, his evocation of tax cuts, combined with a lengthy section in which he discussed programs that he intended to cut, nicely dovetailed with Republican complaints about pork and earmarks.

In fact, Obama seemed to pre-empt Bobby Jindal's Republican response, prefiguring many of the points that were later made by the Louisiana governor. While it seems unlikely that the speech convinced any Republicans to reconsider their positions, it went a long way toward undercutting attempts to depict the Democrats as irresponsible spendthrifts.

Ultimately, this speech was designed to create a consensus among American voters (and consumers). It plotted a hopeful, optimistic path through a crisis that has, increasingly, sapped the economy not only of credit, but of energy and hope.
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