Friday, February 20, 2009

The Latest Message War

This article also appears in

The Fight to Win Hearts and Minds Over the Economy
The messaging wars are in full swing over the Obama administration’s plans to reverse the slide in the economy. The latest example is still playing out after yesterday’s commentary by CNBC’s Rick Santelli from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade. (After hearing about it all day, I became the 220,884th viewer on YouTube.) In a nutshell, Mr. Santelli denounced plans to provide $75 billion to support certain borrowers (“losers”) who face foreclosure. He called for a protest – a “Chicago Tea Party” – against using taxpayer’s money to subsidize someone else’s (and not his) mortgage.

We’ve seen the sides line up. Earmarks, pork, and hand-outs versus stimulus, recovery and investment. Waste versus necessity. House flippers who got caught versus predatory lenders. Socialism versus pragmatism. It’s evident that the middle ground is missing.

Bills are moving through Congress but the process remains ugly. We need a diversity of opinions and ideas but everyone needs to take a quick breath. We need to try really hard to let go of personal agendas and focus on our collective goals. I know, I know, we’re talking about politics – by definition, there’s an agenda. But this situation reminds me of the kind of counsel we’re supposed to give as strategic advisors – tell the client what they need to hear – what’s good for their business – not what we want to tell them.

Clearly, Santelli's message struck a populist chord. We’re supposed to be responsible for ourselves, take responsibility and live with our mistakes. We’re Americans! Yes, fine. I’m with that. Yet, Americans have heart. We volunteer more than any other country. We find strength in our communities. We rush to aid others in times of crisis. Well, this is a crisis.

The messaging mavens are entitled to build whatever walls or bridges they want. In this mortgage crisis, though, it’s interesting to see how “subsidy” has become a dirty word. Here’s where a breath, some perspective, could help. We subsidize all the time. Look at the insurance industry. Non-smokers subsidize smokers. Motorcycle riders who wear helmets subsidize those who do not. Sober people subsidize alcohol and drug treatment programs.

Seventy five billion dollars is, indeed, an enormous sum of money and nearly no one wants to see us spend cash that we don’t have. The scale of all of this is unprecedented. It’s scary. But, it’s been said that desperate times call for desperate measures. That does not mean desperate behavior. When it comes to addressing our problems, we need rational minds crafting rational programs communicated in a rational way.

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