Paging Dr. Obama

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When people like Ben Bernanke say the recession is over, they sound like doctors telling a patient who nearly died in a car accident that he's no longer bleeding. Some comfort.

That is how glib and detached pronouncements that the recession is over must be to the public, which is coping with high unemployment, evaporated equity, and shrunken investments. Even when Democrats acknowledge recovery is not complete and will be gradual they use spatial and temporal terms that are rather meaningless. President Obama has said the economy has been pulled "back from the brink"; Joe Biden has spoke of a new "trajectory" for the economy; New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, running for reelection, has likened fixing the economy to turning a large ship. If Democrats want to convince the public that the economy's improving, they must quit talking like pop economists and more like doctors. As the party in power they are largely responsible for helping heal the economy, and they need to diagnose its problems, treat them, and describe what recovery will bring -- and what it will not.

First, Democrats should immediately drop talk of the recession ending based on the fact that gross domestic product is growing, not shrinking. That's like telling a gaunt woman her starvation is over because she is eating again, despite being 30 pounds underweight. Republicans said the economy was fine for years because it was growing, and they lost two elections as a result. Growth is not enough; cancers grow too.

Second, define what full health (success) will be. A useful suggestion from Richard Posner is the when GDP returns to (or near) its trend line, i.e. where it would be if not for the recession. This is necessary but insufficient as GDP could get back to normal while unemployment remains elevated. So "health" should be based on broader categories: levels of unemployment, income, housing prices, et cetra.

If Democrats slice the economy into these pieces, they can be help themselves politically by isolating unpopular programs (the bank bailout) and highlighting successes, e.g. the rising stock market. For instance, Republicans can slam bank bailouts for not lowering unemployment even if they're hiking stock prices because Democrats have not done enough to define what the bailout should be accomplishing, how unemployment will be conquered, and so on. Democrats should disaggregate the economy into constituent parts, such as unemployment. For each category they should describe the treatment and how much progress is being made. A doctor would tell his patient what body parts are injured, what treatments are being used on them, and how the healing is coming along. This builds the patient's confidence that the doctor knows what he's doing and can be trusted in the future. Confidence is necessary for recovery and trust would help Democrats retain congressional seats next year.

Not only would this divvying up clarify the purposes of recovery programs, it would allow Democrats to point to improving areas to make up for those areas that are lagging in progress. "While foreclosures are high, unemployment has come down," it could be said in the future. Arguably this is cherry-picking, but the GOP will cherry-pick too, so why not let each side pick and the public choose who is more persuasive?

Finally, define what won't be the same as be before. It would be dishonest to let the public believe that once the economy recovers it will be 2005 all over again -- as dishonest as telling a crash victim he'll play ball like he was in high school again. It would be politically dangerous too because if the public expects their lives to be precisely like they were before, and they don't turn out that way come election year, Democrats could set themselves up for failure. They have to define success down. Even when the patient is released from the hospital, he won't quite be the same.

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Justin Miller was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 to 2011. He is now the homepage editor at New York magazine. More

Justin Miller was a associate editor at The Atlantic. Previously he was an assistant editor at RealClearPolitics, a political reporter in Ohio, and a freelance journalist.
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