Obama Word Games: The Meaning Of “Recovery”

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In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. — George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

Something subtle and important happened last night. Barack Obama, in his prepared remarks before the prime time press conference, changed the meaning of the word “recovery.”

For months now, “recovery” in public discourse has meant something very specific–an end to the current recession. The stimulus bill, targeted squarely at the current downturn was called, for instance, “The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.” The website to track the stimulus spending was called Recovery.gov. In a talk Wednesday before the Council on Foreign Relations, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner used the word “recovery” 12 times, always to mean the same thing: An end to the immediate crisis. On Monday, Obama made the same use of the word. “As I’ve said before, there are a number of legs in the stool in economic recovery,” he said, before listing them off: a housing plan, the stimulus, a small business fix and a plan to ease the credit fix. Each leg was narrowly targeted to the immediate problem, the rapid shrinking in economies around the world.

But last night, Obama adopted a different meaning for the word. Suddenly, “recovery” did not just mean an end to the immediate recession. “The budget I submitted to Congress will build our economic recovery on a stronger foundation so that we don’t face another crisis like this 10 or 20 years from now,” he said in a sentence so difficult to unpack that it reads as if it had been written by lawyers. (Does he mean build upon the recovery? Or build under the recovery?) Later, he completed the transformation with this line: “That’s why this budget is inseparable from this recovery: because it is what lays the foundation for a secure and lasting prosperity.”

Suddenly the time horizon had shifted. “Recovery” now meant the nation’s long-term economic and fiscal stability. As politics, it was a masterful move, but as a practical matter it would surely make George Orwell wince. By the administration’s own economic projections, on which Obama’s budget is built, the economic bottom of the current recession should come either later this year or next year. After that, the economy is set to expand. The “recovery” (in the old sense) will be upon us by the time most of Obama’s budget takes effect. This is why the bulk of Obama’s new tax and spending proposals–for energy, education and healthcare–are not set to take effect until 2011 or later, after the recession is over.

Yet if the president can expand the definition of “recovery” to include this time period, he may be able to expand his political capital to carry out his long-range agenda, which has little to do with ending the current downturn. (Presidents, it must be said, try to pull this trick all the time. In a more egregious example, George W. Bush tried to expand the discussion of “terrorism” after September 11, 2001 to include Saddam Hussein, who had nothing to do with those attacks.) And so we get, on the front page of today’s Washington Post, this headline: “President Points to Progress on Economic Efforts: He Says Budget Is Key To Recovery.” Translation: Obama’s foes beware. (More after the jump.)

In an instant, Republicans and moderate Democrats who oppose the significant medium-range deficit spending in the Obama budget, or who oppose his policy prescriptions around energy, health care and education, suddenly find themselves in the position of allegedly opposing economic “recovery.” This is nonsense, if “recovery” means what it used to mean–an end of the current recession. Obama can claim that his opponents are working against long-term economic stability or even superior policy ideas, but not the end to the recession.

What makes this all the more notable is that Obama was, until recently, very keen on pointing out that the measures he was taking to deal with the immediate economic “recovery”–or an end to the recession–were not the same as broader policy plans for spending and taxation. Here is what Obama said in his first prime time press conference, on February 9:

My whole goal over the next four years is to make sure that whatever arguments are persuasive and backed up by evidence and facts and proof, that they can work, that we are pulling people together around that kind of pragmatic agenda. And I think that there was an opportunity to do this with this recovery package [the stimulus act] because, as I said, although there are some politicians who are arguing that we don’t need a stimulus, there are very few economists who are making that argument. I mean, you’ve got economists who were advising John McCain, economists who were advisers to George Bush — one and two — all suggesting that we actually needed a serious recovery package. And so when I hear people just saying we don’t need to do anything; this is a spending bill, not a stimulus bill, without acknowledging that by definition part of any stimulus package would include spending — that’s the point — then what I get a sense of is that there is some ideological blockage there that needs to be cleared up.

In other words, back then Obama was pointing out–correctly–that short-term stimulus spending to prompt an economic “recovery” was not the same as a normal budget debate. The rules were different. Spending was the whole point. Now, when it serves Obama’s political interests, Obama seems to have changed his mind. Deficits five or more years away are, he now claims, are about “recovery” as well. And all he did was change the meaning of a single word.