President-elect Barack Obama’s top political aides are transplanting their campaign tactics to the policy arena, using data from polls and focus groups to shape the debate over a stimulus plan that may cost at least $775 billion.
David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political adviser, along with campaign media adviser Jim Margolis, are encouraging lawmakers to use the word “recovery” instead of recession, and “investment” instead of “infrastructure.” Those recommendations came from focus-group research indicating that such framing would make the package more appealing to voters.
By Lorraine Woellert and Hans Nichols
The Obama camp is trying to build support for the stimulus proposals, which have encountered resistance from lawmakers of both parties over size and cost. Republicans have employed similar tactics in past policy debates, notably when they labeled the estate tax as the “death” tax in arguing for its repeal.
“Not unlike news organizations, we poll public attitudes about where the economy is,” Robert Gibbs, Obama’s choice for White House press secretary, said in an interview. “We’re not polling to see what should be in an economic-recovery plan.”
Axelrod and Margolis briefed Senate Democratic leaders yesterday morning and their House counterparts at lunch today on the details of the research, participants in the meetings said.
Reinforcing the message, Obama today said the U.S. risks sinking deeper into an economic crisis without an infusion of government spending and a cut in tax rates, and urged Congress to act quickly on a stimulus package.
In a speech at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, Obama drew a portrait of a nation where family income is falling, the unemployment rate is rising and a “generation of potential and promise” may be lost without federal action.
“I don’t believe it’s too late to change course, but it will be if we don’t take dramatic action as soon as possible,” he said. “If nothing is done, this recession could linger for years.”
Obama officials are polling on how to frame the economic proposals for voters and what language should be used, Gibbs said. They want to know “how America reacts” to the president- elect’s stimulus proposals and the public’s “attitudes toward the economy,” he said.
Axelrod and Margolis encouraged the senators to change the way they were discussing the stimulus plan and adopt language that the aides had tested in focus groups, said a Democratic official briefed on the meeting.
The two Obama advisers said the old way of talking about the plan sends the wrong signal, the Democratic official said, adding that the substance of the package was also discussed.
The Democratic senators, including Dick Durbin of Illinois and Tom Carper of Delaware, were given data showing that about half the poll’s respondents favored making huge investments that would expand government during a recession even if such measures result in a $1 trillion deficit.
Obama’s economic stimulus proposals encountered opposition today in the Senate, where some members of his party criticized elements of the plan as ineffective.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, said he doubted a $140 billion proposal to give $500 to individuals and $1,000 to families by withholding less from their paychecks would do much to boost the economy. Conrad said the idea was similar to rebate checks sent last year by the Treasury Department, which he said were “largely a bust” in terms of fixing the economy.
“I’m very skeptical that’s going to make a difference,” he told reporters in Washington. “For the average family, it’s going to add $20 a week — I mean, how much lift is that going to give?”
Axelrod dismissed any notion that Democrats were divided or weren’t committed to acting swiftly. “What I sense is a real spirit of cooperation,” he said today in an interview after briefing House leaders on his polling.
“There’s an enormous appetite in this country for action,” he said. He declined to provide specifics about his polling and focus-group data.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said she was satisfied with the conclusions of Axelrod’s polls, which she called “very, very positive.”
‘Like the Brand’
“People don’t know the details but they like the brand,” she said.
It isn’t unusual for White House aides to commission polls to determine where the public stands on an issue, though the law prohibits them from using federal money for polling that might be construed as election-related, said Dick Morris, who conducted polling for former President Bill Clinton.
“We polled everything, every policy initiative, everything you can think of,” Morris said. “It’s become pretty standard.”
By contrast, he said, President George W. Bush “didn’t really poll policy, he polled the presentation.”
The question, he said, was whether Obama followed the Clinton or Bush model.
“My guess is that Obama will more like Clinton than Bush,” he said.
Obama, who takes office Jan. 20, has said his economic package won’t be influenced by political calculations. He has instructed his advisers “to make sure that we are proceeding on projects and investments based on national priorities and not based on politics,” he told a news conference on Nov. 26.
Congressional Republicans dismissed the Democrats’ plans to use poll-tested language to help pass a stimulus package.
“President-elect Obama’s real problem is that congressional Democrats don’t believe that tax relief is critical to revitalizing the economy and is overwhelmingly supported by the American people,” said Brad Dayspring, spokesman for Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the second-ranking House Republican.