Obama's use of fear card may backfire

WASHINGTON Thu Feb 12, 2009 1:41am EST

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama may think words like "catastrophe," "crisis" and "disaster" help sell his economic rescue plans, but U.S. history has shown that scare tactics can backfire.

Having campaigned on a promise of hope and run against what he called President George W. Bush's "politics of fear," Obama may be taking a big political risk -- for himself and his policies -- by resorting to the same tactic.

In pressing Congress and the public to back expensive proposals, Obama has used the well-worn political rhetoric of fear to paint dire scenarios, hoping to persuade skeptics of the need for quick action. It may work, and it may not.

"That end-of-the-world type of rhetoric is not good for business confidence," said Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at the Cato Institute.

Critics accused Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney of scaring the public to push through programs that trod on civil liberties in the name of national security.

Fear of another September 11, 2001, attack was used by Bush and his administration to justify the war in Afghanistan against the Taliban, the Iraq war over weapons of mass destruction, and the creation of the Guantanamo Bay prison to hold hundreds of terrorism suspects without trial.

Obama took office on January 20 facing a different crisis: an economic meltdown that sank venerable financial firms, slashed hundreds of thousands of jobs a month and prompted banks to clamp down on lending, a key engine for economic growth.

To lift the economy out of crisis, Obama introduced an economic stimulus package and crafted a new bank rescue plan.

"TURN A CRISIS INTO A CATASTROPHE"

"Doing a little or nothing at all will result in even greater deficits, even greater job loss, even greater loss of income, and even greater loss of confidence," Obama said this week. "Those are deficits that could turn a crisis into a catastrophe."

Last week he wrote in The Washington Post: "Our nation will sink deeper into a crisis that, at some point, we may not be able to reverse."

Using language to play on public fears could scare people into supporting Obama. It could also push them in the opposite direction.

"It cuts both ways. It's a way of putting pressure on Congress to act, but if people are really fearful, they're not going to spend money and that lengthens the recession," Darrell West, director of governance studies at The Brookings Institution said. "It's a double-edged sword."

Obama told ABC's "Nightline" he was aware of the tightrope. "I'm constantly trying to thread the needle between sounding alarmist, but also letting the American people know the circumstances that we're in," he said.

Other presidents have played the fear card and some have suffered for it.

President Jimmy Carter sought to address an energy crisis that forced long lines at gasoline stations and produced sky-high inflation in his 1979 "crisis of confidence" speech.

"The energy crisis is real. It is worldwide. It is a clear and present danger to our nation. These are facts and we simply must face them," Carter said.

He went on to be a one-term president.

"FEAR ITSELF"

By contrast Franklin D. Roosevelt, who assumed the presidency during the Great Depression, tried to lift Americans out of the depths in his inaugural address by saying, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

He won election four times.

The pessimistic economic news battering the United States has created widespread anxiety but -- even if Obama is riding high on a wave of popularity -- not everyone believes that the new president has come up with the right response.

The stock market found little comfort in Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's financial plan on Tuesday, posting steep declines despite his warning of "a dangerous dynamic" that must be stopped.

"Our national leaders are promoting fear rather than more confidence that we will work our way through this eventually, no matter how tough the challenges are, and that fear can actually sometimes make things worse," Republican Senator Jeff Sessions said.

Playing with fear is "high stakes poker" because while the public is very concerned about the economy, only about 20 percent are certain the economic stimulus proposals will work, said Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute.

"Right now people really are nervous and very scared, but they are also not very confident about federal government capability," she said.

(Editing by Howard Goller)