February 25, 2009 / 3:23 AM / 11 years ago

Obama seeks the right tone on U.S. economy

By Steve Holland - Analysis

U.S. President Barack Obama gives his primetime address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington February 24, 2009. REUTERS/Jim Young

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama tidied up his economic message on Tuesday, reviving the hopeful “Yes We Can” spirit of his campaign and abandoning the “Maybe We Can’t” impression he took to the White House.

Since he took power on January 20, Obama’s optimistic rhetoric had taken a turn into grim territory, with bleak warnings that the damage to the U.S. economy may be irreversible and that a catastrophe lay just around the corner.

This is not the way other newly minted presidents have addressed the economic challenges they inherited. Depression-era Franklin Roosevelt told Americans they had “nothing to fear but fear itself.” Ronald Reagan exhorted people to “believe in ourselves.”

By contrast Jimmy Carter, in the midst of an energy crisis, pounded a downbeat theme that Americans were suffering from a “crisis of confidence” and the “loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.”

No less an expert than former President Bill Clinton, a master at public persuasion, called Obama out on his language last week.

“I like (him) trying to educate the American people about the dimensions and scope of this economic crisis,” Clinton told ABC News. “I just would like him to end by saying that he is hopeful and completely convinced we’re gonna come through this.”

Obama and his aides appear to have taken notice. There was more upbeat language in his address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress.

“We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before,” he said. “The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation.”


Presidents often try to straddle a line between being overly optimistic and painfully honest.

Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, drew sharp fire from critics for overly upbeat assessments of the Iraq war when it was clear that U.S. troops were in the fight of their lives.

Obama’s recent pessimism, however, has been noteworthy for a man who built his presidential campaign on hope and is praised for his communication skills.

“He trusts the American people with the truth,” David Axelrod, senior adviser to the president, told NBC News in defending Obama’s approach.

Economist Peter Morici said Obama may have unwittingly contributed to a lack of economic confidence that has Americans in the doldrums. A dive in consumer spending is contributing to hundreds of thousands of layoffs.

“He’s talking down the economy and he’s making it more difficult to turn things around,” said Morici, a professor at the University of Maryland. “By making people pessimistic, they are less inclined to spend their stimulus money.”

Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said Obama had an obligation to try to revive the can-do spirit in Americans.

“It’s a fine line,” Black said. “The president needs to be optimistic. The coach can’t come out and say ‘We’re probably going to lose’ and just go through the motions. If the leader doesn’t think you can beat the other team, why should the players?”

But pollster John Zogby said Obama’s strong job approval rating — more than 60 percent — indicated he had been telling Americans what they needed to hear.

“When a president tells the truth about how bad things are, he’s not telling the American people anything they don’t know already,” Zogby said. “What he’s telling them is that for once, a president understands how bad things are.”

Editing by Howard Goller and Chris Wilson

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