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As A Great Communicator, Did Obama Make The Case For His Agenda?


President Obama came into the White House eight years ago, hailed for his skills as a communicator. But as he leaves office, by his own admission, Obama hasn't always been so skilled at making the case for his initiatives or for his achievements. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith has this look at how the first major achievement of Obama's presidency played out.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Even before President Obama moved into the White House, he and his team made a choice that made actually selling his policies to the public more difficult. In December, 2008, Obama's economic team gathered in Chicago to map out what would become the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

AUSTAN GOOLSBEE: A dispute, discussion, something breaks out at that meeting. We haven't even come in yet.

KEITH: Austan Goolsbee is a professor at the University of Chicago and was a top economic adviser in the early years of the Obama presidency. He says there were two schools of thought.

GOOLSBEE: Doing something on the order of magnitude of the problem, which everyone understood is going to be a collection of a whole bunch of things and you're going to have a hard time explaining it.

KEITH: Or...

GOOLSBEE: Couldn't we just pick one thing and just do that one thing, and that would be really easy to explain?

KEITH: The economy was hemorrhaging jobs. And Obama's economic team was afraid the country was on the brink of another Great Depression. The president chose to go big.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today does mark the beginning of the end, the beginning of what we need to do to create jobs for Americans scrambling in the wake of layoffs.

KEITH: Obama signed the Recovery Act in February of 2009. And even in that speech, the challenges of explaining the behemoth $780 billion package were clear. He talked about the millions of jobs it would save or create, a metric so squishy it proved hard for Obama to claim credit for it later and made it easy for opponents to criticize the stimulus as a failure. He spent most of this speech talking about investments.


OBAMA: Rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, repairing our faulty dams and levees, bringing critical broadband connections to businesses and homes in nearly every community in America, upgrading mass transit.

KEITH: But Frank Luntz, a Republican messaging expert, says to a lot of Americans, the word investment just sounded like code for big government spending.

FRANK LUNTZ: There was real hostility early on, a feeling that it's just an expansion of Washington, and nobody was going to benefit and everyone was going to get stuck with the tab.

KEITH: Luntz says Obama's team overestimated Americans' appetite for stimulus spending. Republicans in Congress, who never supported the Recovery Act, repeatedly called it a failed trillion-dollar stimulus. In reality, a big chunk of it went to tax cuts. But in Obama's bill-signing speech, the mention of those tax cuts came near the end.


OBAMA: About a third of this package comes in the forms of tax cuts, by the way, the most progressive in our history, not only spurring job creation but putting money in the pockets of 95 percent of hardworking families in America.


KEITH: The way the tax cuts were distributed also limited any public relations benefit. The money just appeared in people's paychecks as a smaller payroll tax deduction.

LUNTZ: Nobody realized. Nobody understood, and so nobody celebrated it.

KEITH: Again, Republican consultant Frank Luntz.

LUNTZ: There's a simple rule in politics. If you don't talk about it, no one knows you did it, and you get no credit for it. And that was the problem with the tax cut component of Obama's stimulus package.

KEITH: Goolsbee says that carefully designed tax cuts targeted at working Americans got little traction with the public.

GOOLSBEE: At one point in the first year, there's a poll that comes out in which something like 60 percent of the country said that they were sick of the tax increases that had come from the stimulus, when in fact 95 percent had gone down.

KEITH: Goolsbee says this is when he began to realize that reality was relative, something that has truly taken hold in American politics now.

GOOLSBEE: And at that point, you know, the president was basically asking the economic team, what is wrong with you people? (Laughter) And, you know, I just felt like punching myself.

KEITH: Economists widely view the stimulus as having helped. But politically, Obama got none of the credit for the tax cuts and a whole lot of grief for the spending. This was a pattern that would repeat itself throughout his presidency. Tamara Keith, NPR News.


Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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