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Talking Like Bill Clinton

Barack Obama prefers to get economic advice from "academic economists" rather lawyers or former White House aides, according to David Leonhardt's fascinating New York Times article on Obamanomics.  But Obama doesn't just talk to academics – he talks like them.  For example, Obama told Leonhardt, "The market is the best mechanism ever invented for efficiently allocating resources to maximize production."

Academic terminology is a good way to talk to the Times, but not to Democrats in Denver.  Nor, contrary to editorials in today's Times and Washington Post, is it a question of "putting some flesh on the position statements" or showing a "willingness to tackle the hard choices."  Obama has many fat position papers, and sparking an internecine war among Democrats over topics like the relative importance of investments and deficit reduction is not the path to victory.

The last Democrat to win the White House showed another way forward in his own acceptance speech.  In 1992, Bill Clinton said,

"I was raised to believe the American Dream was built on rewarding hard work. But we have seen the folks of Washington turn the American ethic on its head. For too long those who play by the rules and keep the faith have gotten the shaft, and those who cut corners and cut deals have been rewarded.  People are working harder than ever, spending less time with their children, working nights and weekends at their jobs instead of going to PTA and Little League or Scouts. And their incomes are still going down. Their taxes are still going up. And the costs of health care, housing and education are going through the roof."

According to Leonhardt, Obama's economic message will increasingly focus on the "middle class squeeze."  In the mouths of ordinary politicians, the burdens of the middle class form a depressing litany of statistics about rising costs and shrinking wages.  But in Bill Clinton's hands, the middle-class squeeze appeared at the heart of a morality play pitting honest, hard-working families against corrupt insiders who put their interests ahead of the common good.  That drama was of course about the economy, but it was also about morality.  It was about the people and the powerful, but it was also about good guys and bad guys.   

We expect the Obama campaign to use similar language this week as it tries to make his economic ideas resonate with voters.  Making the economy a battle between virtue and vice does not come naturally to academic economists, but it is the language that people will remember, long after they have forgotten whether the market efficiently allocates resources to maximize production.

--Robert Gordon and James Kvaal