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Obama Switches Between Past and Present in Describing Recession

To listen to President Barack Obama, the recession is either a current condition or a historical event.

The president has toggled between the past and present in the more than 235 references to the economy he has made since Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives one year ago. On Oct. 18, he talked about America’s “post-recession” condition. Six days later, he described “this brutal recession” as a persisting reality.

Obama’s inconsistency could complicate his effort to convince voters the economy has improved and that he deserves a second term, said economists and polling experts. His task, they said, is to talk up the economy, without talking down to the voters who are struggling under it.

“When he’s referring to the recession in the present tense, it tends to aggravate the gloom,” said Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist for IHS Global Insight. “But if he’s too positive, he looks out of touch.”

Conversely, “there is a danger in focusing completely on the negative,” Gault said. “Not only would it affect consumer confidence and damage spending, but it would also damage Obama because people would say, ‘Wait a minute, you’ve been around here for three years.’”

‘Stirred Anxiety’

Wayne Fields, an expert on presidential rhetoric at Washington University in St. Louis, said the president’s “inconsistency has stirred anxiety” with voters. “But the anxiety is also what is driving the inconsistency.”

Obama, who campaigned on his ability to articulate a national vision, is “held to a higher bar because he is capable of it,” Fields said. “So far, he hasn’t been able to incorporate new details into the story.”

Obama’s predicament is similar to those faced by Ronald Reagan in 1984 and President George H.W. Bush in 1992, both of whom confronted recessions in their first term. Reagan was rewarded with re-election; Bush was defeated by President Bill Clinton.

While the recession Obama inherited ended earlier in his presidency compared to Reagan and Bush, the unemployment rate will likely be higher than the 7.5 percent that accompanied Reagan in 1984 and the average 7.2 percent at the time of Bush’s re-election race. The White House’s internal forecast from Sept. 1 predicts a 9 percent jobless rate and 2.9 percent growth for 2012.

‘Morning in America’

“Obama couldn’t say “Morning in America,’” said Robert Shrum, a Democratic strategist, referring to Reagan’s 1984 campaign slogan. “People would get mad unless things change dramatically.”

Bush insisted the economy was healthy, even as voters still felt the effects of a recession that officially ended in March 1991. The economy grew at more than 4 percent every quarter in the months leading up to the 1992 election. Still, “people thought that he was totally out of touch with them,” Shrum said.

Obama has tried to avoid that mistake. In September 2010, he downplayed the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based National Bureau of Economic Research finding that the 2007-2009 recession -- typically defined as a significant and sustained decrease in economic activity -- ended in June 2009. The NBER bases its assessments on peaks and falls in payrolls, incomes, industrial production and sales, as well as gross domestic product.

“Even though economists may say that the recession officially ended last year,” Obama said in Washington on Sept. 20, “it’s still very real” for the millions of Americans out of work.

Weak Economic Growth

About 77 percent of Americans believe the country is still in a recession, according to an Oct. 4 poll by Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. To walk the line between average citizens and economists, Obama has tried to signal to voters that the economy, which expanded at a 2.5 percent annual rate last quarter, is now growing -- just not fast enough. “The job of any president is to be realistic about the present but optimistic about the future,” said White House Communication Director Dan Pfeiffer.

The so-called Arab Spring of pro-democracy demonstrations and tsunami and earthquake in Japan disrupted the global economy in ways that affected the U.S. recovery, such as rising gas prices. The timing of those events have influenced the president’s evolving assessments of the nation’s recovery.

Worst Recession Over

In his State of the Union address this year, Obama said that the recession was over. “Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back,” he said on Jan. 25. “ Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again.”

On a bus tour in Decorah, Iowa, on Aug. 15, he took a different tack.

“We had an Arab Spring that promises democracy and potentially a growth of human rights throughout the Middle East, but it also caused high gas prices that put a crimp on a lot of families just as they were trying to dig themselves out from the recession,” Obama said.

“Then we had a tsunami in Japan that disrupted supply chains and affected markets all through the world,” he said. “And then in Europe, there are all kinds of challenges around the sovereign debt there, and that has made businesses hesitant and some of the effects of Europe have lapped onto our shores. And all those things have been headwinds for our economy.”

Audience-Influenced Language

The president’s language also can shift with his audience.

At the beginning of the second quarter, when economists were forecasting an average of 3.0 percent growth for 2011, Obama put the recession in the rear-view mirror.

“Nearly two years after one of the worst recession in our history -- certainly the worst one in our lifetimes -- our economy is showing signs of real strength,” he said on April 1, at a UPS facility in Landover, Maryland.

Six days later, when addressing a mostly black audience in New York, he made the recession sound more current. “Those with the least have been sacrificing the most during this recession.” he said on April 6 at the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network forum.

The unemployment rate for black residents in October was 15.1 percent, compared with 14.9 percent in June 2009 when the recession ended. In August, joblessness for African Americans climbed to 16.7 percent, the highest since 1984, according to Labor Department figures.

Unemployment Rates

The unemployment rate for whites last month held at 8 percent, compared with 8.7 percent in June 2009. In October 2009, the rate climbed to 9.4 percent, the highest since 1982, Labor Department figures show.

As the president attempts to fine-tune his re-election messages, he has at least one experience to guide him. Leading into the 2010 mid-term elections, Obama claimed that he and his colleagues in the Democratic congressional majorities had driven the economy “out of the ditch,” and that Republicans wanted to return to the economic policies of President George W. Bush.

“That turned out to be disastrous,” said Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster. Obama’s party lost 63 seats in the House.

The challenge for Obama is to find a middle ground, he said. “Many on his economic team want him to talk up the economy,” said Greenberg. “Everyday there’s a discussion on what balance do you take on this.”

Gault, from IHS Insight, said that there is a safer course for the president.

“He’s probably better not using the word recession,” he said, “and just saying we have a very difficult economy.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Hans Nichols in Washington at hnichols2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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