The Great Recession

Obama's invoked the FDR analogy in a much more direct, rhetorical way

Published December 17, 2009 6:53PM (EST)

As I noted in a previous post today, in response to news of the House's passage of the $174B jobs bill, President Barack Obama used the term "Great Recession." Maybe I have a tin ear, but that was the first time I noticed him using that specific phrase.

Obviously, there was plenty of "worst economic crisis since the Great Depression" usage both during the campaign and even after Obama and Vice President Joe Biden took office. That line seemed to be used at some point in almost every campaign speech--and with cause.

But "Great Recession" is a different semantically, is it not?

For one, the usage not merely invokes directly, but ryhmes with and includes the capitalization of, "Great Depression." (The White House release yesterday capitalized it, making it not merely an adjective-noun combination, but a proper noun.) And, of course, as a rhetorical device it analogizes the magnitude of our present situation to that of the 1930s and 1940s.

In any event, if you do a google search of the White House website for "great recession," there are 14 mentions or references to the term during 9 separate public statements from four different persons: Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, who made first mention back on July 29; White House senior adviser Robert Gibbs; Obama; and, more than any of those three combined, Biden.

Here, as best I can tell (and with thanks to fantastic work by Salon intern Emily Holleman) is the chronology:

July 29, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs:

“We all have watched and we've all heard and read stories -- some of which you all have written -- where the discussion wasn't whether or not we were improving of what have you, but how far -- how much further we could fall; could we go off the edge of that cliff into what some are calling the Great Recession, or as some were betting that we could fall into a depression.” (Press gaggle, Air Force One en route to Bristol, Virginia)

September 3, Vice President Joe Biden:

“President Obama and I, when we entered office, we were in the midst of what I refer to as the Great Recession.” (Remarks on the 200 Days of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Brookings Institute, Washington, DC)

September 22, Biden:

“And even in Michigan, which is being battered now as a consequence of this Great Recession, and Michigan, which was the best--where there was only a 37 percent gap between premium and wages is actually the smallest -- but still a 37 percent gap.” And later: “During this Great Recession, when inflation actually fell .7 percent. Inflation fell .7 percent, and premiums increased 5.5 percent.” (Address to National Association of Insurance Commissioners, Gaylord National Hotel and Convention Center, National Harbor, Maryland)

September 27, President Barack Obama:

“Our entire financial system was poised on the brink of collapse with many fearing that what has been called the Great Recession would become another Great Depression.” (Address to Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Annual Phoenix Awards Dinner, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Washington, DC)

October 2, Biden:

“We will recover. And we're determined that when we do, the middle class is in a better position coming out of this than when it went into this Great Recession.” (Remarks on Unemployment Numbers, White House, Roosevelt Room, The White House)

October 30, Biden:

“[The President] termed the Recovery Act the beginning of the end of the Great Recession that we faced. And we called it a Great Recession not to engage in hyperbole; it's the worst recession America has ever faced short of a depression. So unfortunately, it was the greatest--meaning worst-recession we've had in modern American history, short of a depression.” And later: "The reason we're here today is to meet the commitment I made to you all when the President put me in charge of this, to assure the American people that this unprecedented investment in the midst of this Great Recession would be totallytransparent, and we would be accountable for every penny we sent out there; and also to let you know in the first quarter of the reporting, the first report that we're making--and we're going to make subsequent reports--that we in fact --what the progress has been, what has been the consequence of the investment made so far." And later still: "Even if we did not have this Great Recession, we should be investing in this infrastructure." (Vice President "Reports over 1 Million Jobs Created", Washington, DC)

November 9, Biden:

“We want to come out of this Great Recession, and we will come out of it, we will come out if strong, but we want to come out of it with the middle class positioned better in the new economy then [sic] they went in.” (Discussion on Middle Class Families, Center for American Progress, Washington, DC)

November 11, White House senior adviser David Axelrod:

“Asia represents a great emerging market for American products and as we rebuild our economy from this great recession, one of the things that’s going to power it is expanded markets for American products.” (“Axelrod Previews President's Arrival in Singapore,” aboard Air Force One en route to Singapore)

December 16, Obama:

“All over our country this holiday season, Americans who lost their jobs in the Great Recession are looking for work.” (Statement on House Passage of Jobs Bill)

Perhaps I'm making mountains of rhetorical molehills here. But nobody disputes that the term Great Depression is a proper noun. Whether we are in fact living through the Great Recession or not is, I suppose, an arguable proposition. In fact, we won't know until it's over just how "great"--meaning bad, as the VPOTUS might say--it is.

Speaking of Biden, he seems to be particularly fond of dropping the GR. Five of the nine speeches in which it was used belong to him, as do 10 of the 14 total mentions. I presume these are prepared remarks, but I'm not sure; the VPOTUS could be freelancing a bit here.

The White House messengers are correct when they said "Great Recession" is a term used by others first, and thus not of their own making. Back in March, Catherine Rampell conducted an etymological inquiry. She found that the term was used sparingly throughout 2008 but mentions ramped up in early 2009.

In that regard, you could say the White House has been slow and sparing in adopting the term. But this fall the White House--or Joe Biden, at least--seems to be warming to it.

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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