Framing the Jobs Plan… Er, Second Stimulus

This time Democrats get that language matters, and the press plays along

Barack Obama proposed his second stimulus last week, pitching a $450 billion measure. Or is it a jobs plan? Let’s say it’s both.

Last go-round, the economic legislation was called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which just goes to show that the Democrats really are clueless when it comes to political language. That somehow never entered the national consciousness and I’ll bet you the vast majority of Americans driving bast those signs touting that this highway construction or that bridge fix is paid for by ARRA never knew that was the same thing as “the stimulus.”

Which is what the press and everybody else called the $800 billion legislation.

This time, though, the wonky Democrats who put the “Reinvestment” in ARRA seem to have learned their lesson. No fifty-dollar words (okay, ten-dollar) this time: It’s just American, jobs, and act. Frank Luntz would approve. And the Dems are staying on message.

Here’s how The Hill put it last week:

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Democrats have dropped the word “stimulus” from their vocabulary.

Though the House minority leader and her caucus are still pushing an economic stimulus agenda to save the economy, they’ve radically changed their rhetoric with the hope of winning over voters who saw “stimulus” as close to a dirty word.

Democrats are now being careful to frame their job-creation agenda in language excluding references to any stimulus, even though their favored policies for ending the deepest recession since the Great Depression are largely the same.

The press is playing along, showing clearly how it often lets governments shape the narrative. If you think this is a “liberal media” thing, think again. Recall the disastrous runup to the Iraq war.

I searched all major news and business publications on Factiva for stories with both stimulus and Obama in them during the past year and got this result:

Here’s what it looks like when I searched for Obama and “jobs plan” or “jobs bill”:

Now here are the same searches for the same period in 2008-09 (the bill passed in February—roughly the middle of the following two charts) . Obama and stimulus:

Obama and jobs plan or jobs bill:

A couple of things jump out. First: there’s been far less coverage of this plan than ARRA got back in 2009. That’s understandable since this one is basically DOA. The Dems controlled Congress and the presidency in 2009. The Republicans in charge today aren’t going to pass much of anything Obama proposes.

Second: The jobs language was barely used by the press back in 2009, but it dominates coverage of the 2011 proposal. Many or even most of the “Obama” and “stimulus” results this month are ones referring to the 2009 law, not the current proposal.

That the “jobs” phrasing went from virtually nothing to dominance shows how the press is swallowing the Democrats’ framing whole.

Now, is it wrong to call the proposal a “jobs plan”? Not necessarily. It is a plan to spur hiring after all, regardless of whether it works. The first stimulus increased employment by an estimated one million and three million jobs, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

But fewer than 600 of the “jobs plan” and “jobs bill” results this month, out of about 1,500, also use the word “stimulus.” That’s not good. Journalists should point out that this is a stimulus bill like the ARRA was.

What’s interests me most is that it shows just how dependent the press can be on politicians for framing and language. It’s no small difference to call something a “jobs plan”, which everyone can theoretically get behind, and a “stimulus”, which sounds vaguely pornographic.

And it’s happened as the president and Democrats have finally wised up about the importance of language.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,