02.18.09

Dear Mr. President, Have the Guts to Be an Optimist

As Obama prepares for his first major speech next week, he should take a page from FDR, Reagan, and his own campaign instead of constantly trying to manage expectations. It sure isn’t helping the stock market.

OK, Mr. President, enough with the doomsday talk already. We get it. Things suck. And they’re going to get worse before they get better.

And we get how it important it was for you to level-set expectations out of the gate, as they were stratospherically out of whack.

We are all in economic rehab now, clear eyed and sober. If we’re not out of work, we know friends and family who are. And those of us lucky enough to have jobs are being showered with resumes. Really good ones.

You were elected because you are a walking, talking hope machine. Plug that sucker back in and crank it up to ten.

So now we want to know that there is light at the end of this bleak, black tunnel.

It’s time for less mope and more hope. You were elected because you are a walking, talking hope machine. Plug that sucker back in and crank it up to ten.

There has been some debate in the opinion pages about whether the FDR or Ronald Reagan approach to a bad economy is the best remedy. Putting that aside, there is one thing they had in common: They were unblushing optimists. And they communicated their enthusiasm until their half-full cups ranneth over.

It’s time to cut the talk about similarities to the Great Depression. First, it sure as hell doesn’t help the markets. Second, it’s not true. Not yet anyway.

Bradley Schiller, an economics professor at the University of Nevada, straightens out the facts for us: “This fearmongering may be good politics, but it is bad history and bad economics. It is bad history because our current economic woes don’t come close to those of the 1930s. At worst, a comparison to the 1981-82 recession might be appropriate, Consider the job losses that Mr. Obama cites. In the last year, the U.S. economy shed 3.4 million jobs. That’s a grim statistic for sure, but represents just 2.2 percent of the labor force. From November 1981 to October 1982, 2.4 million jobs were lost—fewer in number than today, but the labor force was smaller. So 1981-82 losses totaled 2.2 percent of the labor force, the same as now.

“Job losses in the Great Depression were on an entirely different magnitude…Jobs were being lost at double or triple the rate of 2008-09 or 1981-82.

“This was reflected in the unemployment rates. The latest survey pegs U.S. unemployment at 7.6 percent. That’s more than three percentage points below the 1982 peak (10.8 percent) and not even of the a third of the peak in 1932 (25.2 percent). You simply can’t equate 7.6 percent unemployment with the Great Depression."

Auto production last year declined by roughly 25 percent. That looks good compared to 1932, when production shriveled by 90 percent. The failure of a couple of dozen banks in 2008 just doesn't compare to 10,000 bank failures in 1933. Stockholders can take some solace form the fact that the recent stock market debacle doesn't come close to the 90 percent devaluation of the early 1930s.

There now, don't you feel better.

George W. Bush was president through some of the darkest days of our history and yet his optimism never waned. He is optimistic by nature, but he also understood the importance of always communicating a sense that things will get better. And it’s in part why John Kerry lost in 2004. He painted a terrible picture of the future. And as Bush said, “You can’t say things are going to be awful, follow me and expect to turn around and see a crowd.”

So, Mr. President, you’ve got a big speech coming up. Turn the heat up and the lights back on.

As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, causes, and individuals, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono. McKinnon is co-chair of Arts & Labs, a collaboration between technology and creative communities that have embraced today’s rich internet environment to deliver innovative and creative digital products to consumers.