Administration Failing at Communicating Bailout Plan

An Ad Age Editorial

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It may seem clear to those in Washington and on Wall Street that a taxpayer-funded bailout is the only way to prevent the economy from going into a death spiral. But the taxpayer is going to need some convincing.

At the time of writing, it's unclear what shape the final bailout package will take -- if it takes one at all.

The taxpayer, however, is choking -- on the price tag as much as the principle. And as goes the taxpayer, so go the politicians on either side of the aisle running for re-election this November. They're facing angry constituents who want to know why they're on the hook for $700 billion worth of bad behavior by the fat cats on Wall Street.

Yet so far no one seems to be making a concerted effort to answer them in a way accessible to the public. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Fed Chairman Bernanke were hauled before Congress last week to explain themselves and their plan. They didn't do such a great job of convincing the politicians. It's hard to see how they'll do a better job convincing voters.

We're not taking a position on the bailout. But this much is clear: If it is the most prudent thing to do at this time, the administration is going to have to do a much better job of selling it. George W. Bush has to convince average Americans that there's something in this for them, whether it be a bright shiny future or the avoidance of a looming financial hell. His Wednesday-night speech wasn't enough.

This isn't to say that a campaign of 30-second ads is called for. Thirties aren't built for issues this complex, and wasting money on TV commercials would raise immediate questions about how that $700 billion is being spent.

Mr. Paulson, Mr. Bush, John McCain, Barack Obama and anyone else who is planning to vote for the bailout plan need to clearly state to the taxpayers why it's in their best interest that this be approved. Pamphlets should be hitting mailboxes (or e-mail boxes) explaining "What It Means for You." Maybe the White House can use some of those video news-releases it's so fond of. And assuming they agree on the final shape of the package, perhaps Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama can donate some of their ad money and time and run a two-minute spot.

Whatever the case, this much is clear: The powers that be are going to have to put a little more lipstick on this pig.
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