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Obama's Speech: Balancing Hope, Hype

When President Obama speaks to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, his tone will likely resemble neither a pep rally nor a wake.

Aides say the president is trying to strike the right balance as he talks about the struggling economy. That means delivering a strong dose of medicine, but without making the patient feel worse.

During his first White House news conference, Obama was asked if he was "talking down the economy" with some of his dire pronouncements.


"No, no, no, no," the president replied, saying he was merely stating the facts. "What I've said is what other economists have said across the political spectrum." Obama went on to say, as he often does, that as bad as the economy is, it's within our power to fix it.

"I'm absolutely confident that we can solve this problem, but it's going to require us to take some significant, important steps," he said.

The optimistic second part of that message has sometimes been overshadowed, though, by the depressing first part — which makes some observers wonder whether Obama's downbeat comments are making the situation worse.

"The Depression narrative could easily end up as a self-fulfilling prophecy," wrote Yale economist Robert Shiller in an op-ed piece for the New York Times this weekend.

Former President Bill Clinton told ABC last week that while he's glad Obama has not resorted to inane "happy talk," it wouldn't hurt to crank up the confidence.


"I just would like him to end by saying that he is hopeful and completely convinced we're going to come through this," Clinton said. "And it's worth reminding the American people that for more than 230 years, everyone who bet against America lost money. It's a mistake to bet against this country over the long run."

Of course there are plenty of good reasons for Americans to be nervous about the economy, no matter what the president is saying: rising unemployment, record home foreclosures, a shaky banking system. But psychology is also an important factor in how businesses and consumers behave.

"Part of the role of the president is to be in some sense cheerleader in chief," said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at IHS Global Insight. "This is essentially what Franklin Delano Roosevelt did in the Great Depression when he talked about, you know, 'The greatest thing to fear is fear itself.' And from that perspective, there's a lot that the president and his advisers can do in boosting morale and boosting confidence."

Obama hardly needs a reminder about the potential power of his own words. A year ago, during the Wisconsin primary, Obama the candidate had to defend himself against charges that his hopeful message was all talk.

"Don't tell me words don't matter," Obama said, recalling FDR's famous line. " 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself.' Just words. Just speeches."

Tuesday night's speech to Congress is an opportunity for the new president to offer his own reassurance, as well as details about the practical steps his administration is taking to rebuild the economy.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs says the president is calibrating his message to be forthright but not frightening.

"I think he understands that it's important for him to be confident and hopeful in the path that we're taking, but honest about the many challenges that we face. And that's what he's working on doing," Gibbs said.

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