Re: Understanding the Dreaded Stimulus

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The central political question raised by Michael Cooper’s piece is why people aren’t convinced they got a tax break with the Recovery Act. One possible answer that has popped up again and again with not just the stimulus, but health care and other Obama initiatives is that there is something fundamentally wrong with how the president and Democrats writ large are selling their shiny new initiatives. The president himself said as much in his recent interview with Peter Baker:

“We probably spent much more time trying to get the policy right than trying to get the politics right. And I think anybody who’s occupied this office has to remember that success is determined by an intersection in policy and politics and that you can’t be neglecting of marketing and P.R. and public opinion.”

The particular policy in question certainly doesn’t lend itself to the big sell. Here’s Cooper:

Actually, the tax cut was, by design, hard to notice. Faced with evidence that people were more likely to save than spend the tax rebate checks they received during the Bush administration, the Obama administration decided to take a different tack: it arranged for less tax money to be withheld from people’s paychecks.

Wage stagnation, ever-rising health care costs (which employers take out of your compensation), increased state taxes resulting from underwater local governments, etc. all provide explanations for why these tax cuts might have been imperceptible; Americans didn’t feel the change in their checks. But that brings us to the question: As Obama suggested, is all that’s missing here political finesse — a little public education campaign or Lisa Simpson-style “temporary refund adjustment” spin?

Well, there’s already the information on and and everywhere in between. Beside some detours to Iraq, Joe Biden has dedicated the lion’s share of vice presidential time to talking about the Recovery Act, and yes, he mentions the tax breaks too. Was all that futile in the face of Republican chants of “The Failed Stimulus”? The GOP spent more time railing against deficits/spending than it did claiming outrageous tax hikes. That same poll Cooper cites found a majority believed taxes have stayed the same and that’s certainly what it felt like. Would any amount of “marketing and P.R.” have changed that?