Today, in a much-hyped speech, President Barack Obama will take another stab at storytelling. After a spring of awkward conversations about IRS shenanigans and NSA leaker Edward Snowden, Obama wants to return our attention to the economy and the plight of the middle class. There will not be any new policy proposals in his address at Knox College, The New York Times assures us. This will be a pure exercise in branding.
There’s even a catchphrase, The Times says: “middle out”—as in, growing the economy from the middle class outward. It’s a tepid slogan, possessing neither the imagery of “trickle-down economics” nor the feistiness of “it’s the economy, stupid.” But it’s an authentic quip from Obama’s repertoire, already a sort of insidery code for the kind of middle-class appeals that propelled his 2012 campaign.
“The “middle out’ phrase is a little confusing for people,” admits Celinda Lake, a Democratic strategist. “If you just say ‘middle out’ people aren’t so clear what you’re talking about. But the idea that we need to grow the middle class, all of that is very compelling.”
“It definitely needs context,” says Maria Cardona, a senior adviser on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign. “They’re not going to put the president in front of a banner that says ‘Middle Out’—that wouldn’t make any sense.”
But “middle out” is more than just another way to say populism. It’s also an economic argument.
In something of a manifesto for the phrase, Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer write in Democracy that the purpose is to explain how helping the middle class will help the nation grow. “Rich businesspeople are not the primary job creators; middle-class customers are,” they write. “The more the middle class can buy, the more jobs we’ll create.” Implicit here are two ideas: first, the Keynesian notion that firing up weak demand is crucial to lifting a country out of a recession; and second, a new view (supported by a growing body of research) that income inequality hinders a country’s growth.
Obama has explored this theme in the past. The middle class is the “true engine of America’s economic growth,” he said in this year’s State of the Union, though he did not elaborate much further. And it’s unclear how vigorously he will sell the link between economic growth and middle-class prosperity, or how successful this line of reasoning will be. Inevitably, there will be a GOP rebuttal that sounds equally compelling to a layman’s ear—say, that spending on the middle class would be nice if we could afford it, but that the government requires fiscal discipline.
Getting mired in such a debate about economic theory would be a mistake, says George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist who writes about political messaging. “The president assumes that the facts will set you free. But they won’t. Most people are not going to understand the facts.”
Instead, “Obama needs to come up with an undercutting moral message,” Lakoff says. “It’s about politics and principles.” Lakoff is partial to Obama's infamous phrase “you didn’t build that,” which he says was in the right spirit but got botched by sloppy delivery. “He meant you didn’t build the roads or the infrastructure, but it was interpreted as you didn’t build the business.”
Obama has since shuffled that idea, of democracy as defined by shared civics, to the back of his deck. But it was the key point of his much-lauded 2005 commencement address at Knox College, where he said:
It’s been the creation of a massive middle class, through decent wages and benefits and public schools that allowed us all to prosper. Our economic dependence depended on individual initiative. It depended on a belief in the free market; but it has also depended on our sense of mutual regard for each other, the idea that everybody has a stake in the country, that we’re all in it together and everybody’s got a shot at opportunity.
There’s symbolism in Obama's decision to return to Knox for today’s speech, and it’s expected that he will reprise parts of his argument from 2005. The difference, eight years later, is that he has specific goals that he needs to sell using this framework.
“It’s a good way to wrap up some of the policy proposals on the Hill: issues like student loans, immigration, cuts to programs that benefit the middle class,” says Democratic strategist Mark Mellman. Hitching the issues to a story about growing the middle class will help voters understand them as a unit, instead of as a jumble of Beltway squabbles.
Stan Greenberg, who wrote a book with James Carville last year on how Democrats need to lobby the middle class, described the political calculation of Obama’s pivot back to the economy. Regardless of how Obama justifies it, with appeals to economics or civics, the president needs to remind the middle class that he still has an eye on their well-being, Greenberg says. That kind of reassurance has been scarce since his re-election. And it will also give him a chance to take credit for some of the slow but steady progress the economy has made.
Greenberg says his consulting firm recently released a study in which people were asked to recall Obama’s economic policies. “People had no idea,” he says. “They had no idea what his economic policies were.”
He added, “He’s got a lot of explaining to do.”