Tuesday, March 10, 2009

We're an American Brand

After finally taking the time to visit the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act website, I would like to say I am impressed. I'd like to, but I can't.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all about Obama, and the ARRA is a good--if somewhat tenuous--step toward the shallow end of our economic dead pool. The content there is good.

It's what's not there that bothers me.

What has always been attractive about Obama has been his balance of style and substance. Sure, he's a policy wonk--but he knows how to use the power of words and imagery to enliven his policy positions and engage the public. It's that whole brand Obama thing.

The power of the Obama brand wasn't that you believed him when he said, "Yes we can!" The power is that he made you want to believe.

The problem with the ARRA website is that it's more PowerPoint than powerful. It is as engaging as the list of possible side effects medical ads are required to include (and without the wonderful prospect of a four hour erection).

Obama's themes of Hope, Progress and Change were empowering. The subtext was a coming together, shouldering the yolk and getting America back were it needs to be. There is none of that in the "Recovery." Recovery reeks of passivity. It's what you do when you're sick...."just lay down, take your medicine, and do what the doctor says and you'll recover." At the time when citizens should be the most involved, the message seems to be the opposite.

Even the recovery logo is a bit tepid. It certainly does fulfill the design criteria of not looking too governmental, and that, I think is where it fails.

In case you haven't been paying attention, this is a government program. Why run from that fact? Why not embrace it? The very essence of the Obama message was that the government is not "them," it "us." After decades of being told government is an external thing, a bad and incompetent thing that some vague entity out there is doing to us, we are presented with a unique opportunity to rebrand what government is. It is us, working together, doing the things we want and need to accomplish.

By branding this as something other than governmental, we're just left with the nebulous Recovery. It sells the goal, not the process--and if when recovery is achieved, what then? When the goal is achieved, do we abandon the ethos and ideals that got us there?

Part of the Obama brand has been this cool, "relax, I've got this" vibe. And, for the most part, he's got this. There is no reason to panic, because we can handle this. We've been through this before. We've been through worse before. We've handled it. Obama's got this because he is following a model that has worked in the past. Remember the New Deal?

Yes, I understand why nobody wants to associate this with the New Deal. The New Deal invokes the inevitable image of, and comparison to, the Great Depression. Few politicians want to do that. But, why not? The most important thing about the Great Depression is that it's over. We got through it, and went on to thrive.

We don't need a new logo, or model to go forward. There is no greater argument than success. We did this before, and it worked. We can do it again. Along the way, we built much of what we take for granted as America.

As a connoisseur of irony, living in Oklahoma was something a treat for me. When people spoke of FDR and the New Deal, they usually decried him as a socialist who stood against everything that made Lee Greenwood's America great. All the while, there was a good chance they had gone to a school built by the WPA. The Works Progress Administration was responsible for many courthouses, armories, roads, post offices and parks throughout the state. If, upon hearing the name Roosevelt, an Okie were to spit on the ground, odds are the sidewalk he spat upon would have a WPA stamp.

When rural Americans listen to Rush Limbaugh explain how the New Deal and big government are destroying America, it is likely the electricity powering the radio station and radio receivers is at some level courtesy of the REA, TVA, or a WPA project. Before the REA, only one in ten rural homes had electricity. After the REA, only one in ten was without.

The United States that emerged from the New Deal went on to prevail in World War II, and send mankind to the moon. By embracing the names, the symbols and imagery of the New Deal and WPA, we embrace it's success. When small-minded demagogues portray recovery efforts as socialist and un-American, they argue against what has made America successful and prosperous.

Rather than avoiding a governmental look, the recovery should be wrapped in the past, and in the flag. One of the most enduring images of the New Deal was Lester Beall's poster for the REA. A smiling farm couple at a fence. Behind them, a field of blue, with red and white stripes. That's all. That's all that's needed. The message is simple. You're Americans. We're Americans. Don't worry, we've got your back. We will get through this.

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