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How Obama should talk about the economy

By James Carville, CNN Contributor
  • James Carville made "It's the economy, stupid!" the theme of 1992 Clinton campaign
  • He says White House's message is undisciplined on the economy
  • Obama should spend more time with those feeling pain, Carville says
  • Carville: Blaming Bush doesn't work, but Obama should oppose GOP policies vigorously

Editor's note: James Carville is a Democratic strategist who serves as a political contributor for CNN, appearing frequently on CNN's "The Situation Room" as well as other programs on all CNN networks. Carville remains active in Democratic politics and is a party fundraiser.

(CNN) -- Memo to the president

Re: Suggestions on How to Talk About the Economy

Sir, I'm sure the last thing that you want is some unsolicited advice from a pundit, particularly a pundit who comes out of the Clinton camp, but CNN has an unspoken policy of publish or perish and with a daughter entering the 11th grade and college costs being what they are, I can't afford to perish just yet.

First of all, to quote one of your predecessors, "I feel your pain."

I know you sit and think, "Not only have I inherited a collapsing economy, I've saved the world from a financial meltdown, saved two-thirds of the American automotive industry and passed heath care reform, which no one from Roosevelt to Truman to Johnson, Nixon or Bill Clinton was ever able to do. I've also made what even my Republican secretary of defense said was 'a very gutsy call' in ridding the world of Osama bin Laden. And I accomplished all of this in spite of the fact that, when I took office, the Fed was unable to use monetary policy to boost the economy because the interest rate was already at ¼%, not to mention the skyrocketing deficits and unfinished wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were staring me in the face. Despite all of this, it seems that every time I try to take credit for something, James Carville and Stan Greenberg post some snide memo from their Democracy Corps polling group, criticizing the way I'm framing my message." Like I said, I feel your pain, sir.

As I see it, this is the problem:

First, for many Americans their problems didn't begin with the financial crisis of September 2008 or even the start of the recession in December 2007 (funny how the Republicans blame that on you). It had been going on for some time with stagnant and declining wages that became the hallmark of the so called "Bush recovery." They've seen such little improvement in their lives over a sustained period that when you talk about the economy getting better it indicates to them that you don't get it, because it is so contrary to their own experience.

So when your advance people set up an event, you should instruct them that, as opposed to scouring the country to find economic success stories, you want to spend more time with the people who are having a tough time. Just like I feel your pain, you gotta feel their pain.

Second: As much as this really is Bush's fault, you can't say that. Why? Because if 100 focus groups say that blaming him doesn't have anything to do with fixing the problem it is probably a good idea to pay attention to them. But don't worry, those focus groups also tell us they already do blame Bush.

If you need more evidence of this, watch one of those Republican debates where the candidates never mention his name. Or consider that, in spite of the current economic situation, the fact that your approval ratings are in the high 40s signals that voters are cutting you a pretty good bit of slack here. I suspect they know what a bad hand you picked up.

Third: With all due respect but to put it bluntly, Mr. President, the White House lacks what political consultants (whom I know are not your favorite people) call message discipline. In your State of the Union address, you talked about investment in innovation leading to our generation's "Sputnik moment."

I'm not too sure about the Sputnik thing; it sounds like something drummed up at Washington cocktail party, but then again, unlike you I am old enough to remember Sputnik. I do think people could warm to the idea of investment in innovation, but frankly we haven't heard a lot of follow-up since then.

Fourth: Have your staff be mindful of wonderful political opportunities as they present themselves. Case in point, the main criticism of your Nobel Prize-winning appointment to the Fed board, Peter Diamond, was that he was too knowledgeable about employment and not schooled enough in the intricacies of finance, which strikes me as rather absurd considering the current state of unemployment in this country. My suggestion is to reappoint him, then take him down and reintroduce him to the Senate committee to make it clear that you're more than willing to accept a 2% increase in inflation if it means a 4% drop in the unemployment rate.

In other words sir, when you're opponents make idiotic assertions, feel free to point them out. Mr. Diamond strikes me as just the sort of appointment a Democratic president should make.

This all leads me to conclude that you can say that you're fighting every day against a wretched recession caused by irresponsible actions in the financial sector and a corrosive culture in Washington that is resistant to any change that threatens those at the very top of our economy.

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Cite chapter and verse your struggles with theses powerful forces to eliminate the Bush tax cuts for the top 1% or to squeeze costs out of our ridiculously expensive health care system and your fight to keep teachers and police officers on payrolls. But whichever of these messages you choose to present, be sure above all to be disciplined and follow up. And part of that follow-up has to address not just the things that you're proposing but also things that your opponents are opposing.

So feel free to gleefully talk about how Republicans want to reinstate the policies that got us into this mess in the first place while you're fighting to implement policies that will get us out of it.

Oh and BTW (my kids tell me that's text for "by the way"), thanks for doing a good job on the oil spill.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of James Carville.