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Presidential candidates lack effective economic rhetoric

Gary Caruso | Sunday, October 5, 2008

Both Republican presidential nominee John McCain and Democratic nominee Barrack Obama should have learned by now that actions speak as loudly as statements on the campaign trail. Presidential rhetoric is unique and judged on likability, confidence and style as much as on content. Yet, with months of campaign experience behind them, both candidates have failed to respond to the economic crisis in a way that could have immediately assured a landslide victory in November.Granted, polls show movement towards Obama nationally and in several of the battleground states. In Florida, for example, Obama has risen to 51 percent during the past week. This rise is due to a slow bleeding of support from McCain rather than any surge by Obama.The common misconception in campaigns is that content – creating a catchy phrase like “main street over wall street” that easily crystallizes a thought – and rapidly responding to an opponent are the primary functions of communications. Ronald Reagan may have famously said in 1980 during his debate with President Jimmy Carter, “There you go again,” but that phrase only culminated his campaign in the minds of voters. Reagan’s tough persona resonated as loudly as his spoken rhetoric.Nearly two weeks ago, as Congress was about to consider remedies to prevent the nation’s banking system from collapse, Obama took himself out of any leadership role by responding that he had a phone and to give him a call if he was needed. By contrast, McCain suspended his campaign to return to Washington, a bold physical rhetorical move which he did not match with his words. At the end of the day when congress voted on a rescue package, McCain had the opportunity to refute Obama’s premise about his superior judgment. Yet McCain failed because his actions did not match his words.McCain should have initially redefined what the media were calling a “Wall Street bailout” as a “main street rescue measure.” He could have easily insisted that his Republican colleagues frame the argument as a recovery measure. McCain had the opportunity to show why his many years of Congressional experience would serve the public well in the White House by also pushing for stronger oversight language in the bill.Secondly, McCain should have never repeated the easy slogans coming from the White House. By repeating a week earlier that the “fundamentals of the economy are strong,” McCain’s sense of urgency and rush to return to Washington were out of character with his statements. He should have – and this is where most campaigns fail – spoken with conditional phrases. For example, to successfully repeat the White House, McCain should have said, “The fundamentals of the economy are strong, but we may need to address a few segments to assure continued strong sustainability.”Thirdly, McCain needed to educate and easily explain the crisis in terms the public can understand, and then show optimism. Warren Buffet, Chairman Birkshire Hathaway summarized the situation recently on PBS’s “Charlie Rose Show.” Buffet optimistically said that the country works very well and our economic system has all the ingredients for a super future, it’s just that the “athlete is on the floor” and needs to catch his breath.Buffet continued with the metaphor by saying that we must prevent a loss of confidence that credit and money will be there in the markets and financial institutions … the issue is like oxygen. If it is available, we don’t think about it. If it is gone, within five minutes it is the only thing to think about. So we lift the athlete from the floor and invest the blank check rather than spend it. The $700 billion rescue package buys $2 trillion of face value mortgages. Only the government can sustain a long term hold on it and make a profit.McCain could have used similar language by saying that the rescue package buys at 22 cents on the dollar and over time can make money. It is a real estate bubble of fear and greed that we must address just like the Internet bubble of the ’90s or the farm bubble in the ’80s. Citing Buffet, 10 years from now Americans will be living better than now.Finally, once McCain suspended his campaign, he should have said that he would only attend the debate to discuss the situation with the American public and then return to Washington. Then, he could have taken credit for any consensus, and specifically for passage in the Senate. He would have been consistent with his actions.A month before an election is an eternity in politics. McCain needs to stop the steady slip of support soon to be competitive in November. He must learn to walk and talk in unison, or he will suffer an electoral landslide loss.

Gary Caruso, is a graduate of Notre Dame’s class of 1973. He is a communications strategist who served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. He can be contacted at GaryJCaruso@alumni.nd.eduThe views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necesarily those of The Observer.