Reality and Our Accounts of It

For all of the new dimensions and innovations he has brought to the worlds of politics and government, Barack Obama still recognizes the value in some tried and true practices that have proven successful over the years.

Case in point: Say something over and over enough times and it will start having an impact on public perception. It’s a strategy that has worked before in New Jersey, and it could be a factor in this year’s campaign for Governor. Back in 1997, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim McGreevey barely uttered a sentence without mentioning that New Jersey had the highest property taxes and auto insurance rates in the nation – and he nearly defeated the incumbent Governor in what would have been a stunning upset.

In Obama’s case, the President and key members of his Administration have begun suggesting that their efforts to turn the economy around are starting to work. It was part of the message that top White House aides and economic advisors delivered in a series of television appearances this past weekend. On 60 Minutes, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said the recession could be over by the end of the year and that signs of an economic recovery already are evident in the economy. Similar sentiments were expressed by Christina Romer, chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers, and Lawrence Summers, Director of the White House’s National Economic Council.

It will be a while before we determine how convincing the Obama team was, but the strategy is one that has been employed often, most recently in the waning days of the Bush administration.

Specifically, the departing president and his surrogates engaged in what appeared to be a coordinated campaign to paint a picture of his presidency that ran counter to the perception by the majority of Americans. In news conferences, television interviews, op-ed articles and more, they did their best to lay the foundation for a positive legacy for the nation’s 43rd chief executive, building it on the notion that he kept America safe after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

When asked about the Administration’s accomplishments on Face the Nation, “defending the country against further terrorist attacks like 9/11” was the first item cited by Vice President Dick Cheney. Similarly, in a Washington Times op-ed article, outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff called the lack of additional terrorist attacks “a testament to the president’s leadership.”

Not only was this message a common theme in the answers Bush provided in his final news conference with the Washington press corps, but his supporters continued to make similar arguments after he left office. Bush made tough decisions that “kept America safe for seven years,” Karl Rove, the former president’s former senior advisor and deputy chief of staff, wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. Marc Thiessen, who served in senior positions at the White House and the Pentagon during the Bush Administration, boasted that there had been 2,688 days without a terrorist attack on American soil when Bush left office. “Al-Qaeda is actively working to attack our country again. And the policies and institutions that George W. Bush put in place to stop this are succeeding,” Thiessen wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.

In our state’s race for Governor this year, the candidates will paint two diametrically opposed pictures of New Jersey.

Democrats will reiterate the themes that dominated Governor Corzine’s budget address and State of the State message: These are tough fiscal times that demand tough decisions – and because of the actions the Governor has taken, New Jersey is in a better position than other states to meet the challenges of the economic crisis. On the other hand, Republicans will continue to charge the state is heading in the wrong direction, with taxes that hurt the middle class and drive businesses out of state.

In the end, it may not matter who is right and who is wrong, only who makes the more convincing argument. Perhaps this is what communications theorist James W. Carey had in mind when he said, “There is reality and then, after the fact, our accounts of it.”

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Read a longer essay on this topic: Reality and Our Accounts Of It: How We Remember Vietnam and How We May Remember George W. Bush.

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