Friday, February 6, 2009

The Failure of Obama to Premediate Economic Recovery

The Obama administration is struggling mightily to get Congress to pass an economic stimulus bill that will do what Obama and his team feel is necessary to turn the US economy around.  As Paul Krugman notes in today's New York Times, the debate over the stimulus package is being controlled by the terms of the Republican arguments of the last eight years about tax cuts, excessive government spending, and so forth. Unlike the Bush administration, which did a masteful job of controlling the terms of the political and, perhaps more important, media debate, Obama and his team are on the defensive, reacting to Republican and media talking points rather than shaping or guiding the political media flow. 

The reason for this is plain to see--and Dick Cheney's recent attempt to terrify Americans about Obama's security policies underscores the problem with Obama's handling of the economic crisis. What Cheney reminds us of is the way in which, especially during the run-up to the Iraq War, the Bush administration blanketed the print, televisual, and networked media with hundreds of spokespeople premediating both the terrible things that would happen if we did not invade Iraq and the wonderful things that would happen in the Middle East after we succeeded in establishing a beach-head for democracy in the Muslim world.

What Obama and his team need to do, and what we have seen very little of over the past few weeks (or in the transition period between the election and the inauguration), is to undertake their own premediation campaign on the economy. And they need to do it now.

First, what needs to happen is that they need to premediate a second Great Depression if we do not act large and act fast.  Where are the images of soup-lines, of abandoned storefronts, of hungry children?  Obama's team must send out its emissaries to all of the cable news networks to remind the nation of the potential consequences of failing to respond adequately to the current financial crisis.  And their appearances need to be accompanied not only by images and sounds from the era of the Depression, but also by downward graphs, diminishing (and increasing) numbers, and shrinking charts to dramatize the potential implications of failing to pass the stimulus package that Obama is convinced that the country needs. 

Simultaneous with this, the Obama team needs to premediate a successful recovery. They need to provide potential scenarios of economic rebirth based on the elements of their plan.  These premediations must not only take the shape of a return to business as usual, but must present potential futures that are transformative and made possible by the important, forward-looking elements of the stimulus package.  Here, Obama people need to bring with them, or circulate among the media, images of wind-farms, of solar installations, of rebuilt bridges and roads, of a renovated and modernized power grid. And they need charts and graphs and numbers. And they need images of future prosperity--again, not a return to some past era but a compelling, attractive, desirable future with green energy, smart consumption, fuel-efficient cars, and so forth.

Some may see this as cynical. But I would call it realistic. Collective public mood and affect are shaped and modulated these days by the premediated flows of print, televisual, and networked media. Arguments do not prevail on their "merits" or on the rational calculus of individual citizens. Mood and "structures of feeling" are contagious and are shaped by the repetition of audiovisual images of potential futures. As with Iraq, the key is not that any one future be premediated, or that these premediations prove true in any specific sense, but that our everyday media are so replete both with negative premediations of failing to follow Obama's stimulus plan and positive premediations of the recovery that will happen if we do follow this plan that the force of public sentiment behind Obama's plan grows so strong that those who would oppose it must get out of the way or be overrun. 

The difficulty here, as opposed to the period in the run-up to the Iraq War, is time. Bush-Cheney had months during which to beat the drums, to deploy their troops of media spokespeople with (s)talking points and figures and images and maps. In the current economic crisis, time is of the essence. If Obama fails to get a stimulus robust enough to begin to turn the economy around, and if things begin to get worse, the current economic crisis will no longer be felt to be the fault of the Bush administration or of the Republicans in Congress who watered it down.  If Obama does not stick to his guns and make it clear that anything short of his plan could lead the nation into its second Great Depression, he and his administration will be made to own the economic mess that should rightly belong to the Bush-Cheney administration and their Congressional Republican collaborators.


Caroline Maun said...

I wonder to what extent the machine(s) to operate the propaganda are still in place, or if they were partisan-specific and have to be rebuilt. To what extent are the pundits, spokespeople, etc., who are in place are already bought and paid for by the former regime--or if there is no loyalty at all to any ideology, but just a simple shift needed to pump the new perspective into the public consciousness. I think you have a great post here. When is your new book going to be available?

Richard Grusin said...

Thanks for the comment. My sense is that the media as a whole have no loyalty to ideology, though different outlets and pundits do. But what is most important to media is having programming, and the current administration is always the major source of programming and can thus shape its tone, tenor, flow, etc. Obama needs to send the members of his new economic recovery team out to every media outlet they can find, with talking points, images, graphs, numbers, etc. His short speech today moves in that direction but the key is repetition and a clear orientation to future scenarios, with a clear message that it is Republican economics that is to blame for the crisis and that will be at fault if the stimulus bill doesn't pass as he wants it to pass.

Clay Walker said...

I have been wondering to what extent the immediacy that is desired or at least called for in response to the economic situation challenges the fear of immediacy implied by premediation. I agree with your post here, I think the Obama administration should do these things; and premediation remains a dominant logic of American mass media. I have not really put too much to this though, just a wonder, really. Still, I am curious if there may be some tension between the two. Premediating an event takes enormous amounts of time. Meanwhile, a prevalent argument is that we don't have enormous amounts of time to deal with the current economic depression/recession/downturn.