From a recent interview with the President in GQ:
You can’t separate good policy from the need to bring the American people along and make sure that they know why you’re doing what you’re doing. And that’s particularly true now in this new communications era. I think that we were ahead of the curve in 2008 in social media and the Internet and digital communications. When we came into office, instead of taking some of those lessons, we suddenly adapted ourselves to the White House press room and structures that had been built back in the 1940s and ’50s. As a consequence of those missteps early, we got the policies right, and that’s why the economy now has grown for five and a half straight years, six years, and why unemployment rates have gone from 10 percent to 5.1 percent. But there was a lot of political pain along the way that might not have been necessary.
Accurately diagnosing economic problems is often challenging. Figuring out the right policy prescriptions to treat the diagnosis is also hard, as is effectively and efficiently implementing the fixes.
But on top of all of that, effectively explaining what you’re doing to “the American people,” who, despite that unfortunate phrase, are not a monolith, is especially challenging.
First, if we’re talking about countercyclical policies of the type that the administration implemented in the heart of the Great Recession, there are two strong forces pushing against efforts to sell measures like the Recovery Act. One, people don’t do “counterfactuals”—what economists think would have happened to key variables had we not intervened. The jobless rate was 8.3% in February 2009 when the Recovery Act passed. It climbed to 10% later that year and didn’t fall below 8.3% until early 2012.
The message that “yes, unemployment’s gone up since we launched the stimulus but it would have gone up more absent the intervention” is not one most people are at all willing to entertain.
Two, opposition political forces take it as their job to discredit these actions. Despite evidence to the contrary, they dubbed the Recovery Act the “failed stimulus” pretty much out of the box (no question, Christy Romer and I didn’t help by using the consensus forecast at the time to predict the impact of the Recovery Act on unemployment; ftr, we had the deltas right—the changes in unemployment, jobs, and GDP—but the levels were too optimistic; this was a huge kick in our own goal that played into opponents hands and vastly complicated the messaging; see the offending Figure 1 here, but also see our beloved Endnote 1).
If those factors didn’t pose enough of a messaging challenge, the fact that we were bailing out banks didn’t help. People correctly perceived that the folks who helped get them into the mess were being rescued with taxpayer dollars. I don’t think anyone could sell that to the public.
President Obama’s point is more about the medium than the message. After using social media arguably more successfully than any prior national election, he notes it was largely dropped in favor of old school methods. Could more Twitter have meant less “political pain?”
I don’t know and have no idea how to back out that counterfactual. I tried writing blogs for the Huffington Post (here’s an e.g.), explaining in granular terms the positive impact of the Recovery Act, but I don’t think they reached anyone. The White House has certainly well adapted social media since then, but the economy’s improved and all those countercyclical interventions are way in the past.
He’s right that the policies were effective, and in many ways, that’s the most important message to get out there now, as in this important new paper by economists Alan Blinder and Mark Zandi. There’s another recession out there somewhere and it is essential that we the correct lessons regarding what worked and what didn’t from the last one.
But other than not scoring a win for the other side, I kinda doubt we could have done a much better job selling the policies in real time, even with a bunch more Snapchatting, etc. I’m not letting us off the hook, nor am I suggesting we did everything right; we didn’t. I just think the nature of the moment, the need for the bailouts, and the fact that things were going to get worse before they got better overwhelmed our messaging skills, such as they were.