'A Failure to Communicate'? Administration Tries to Explain Financial Crisis

IMAGE: Explaining recession crisisABC News Photo Illustration / AP Graphics
Administration Tries to Explain Financial Crisis.

With the nation's recession nearing a year-and-a-half in duration, critics from Capitol Hill to Main Street say the Obama administration has not succeeded in helping the general public understand how the financial crisis occurred and what the government is doing to solve it.

"To even help people understand what is going on, they haven't done a good job," said professor George Lakoff a linguistics professor at the University of California-Berkeley. "They haven't been able to explain what the problems are."

"They need to find a way for people to understand it," he said. "That is extremely urgent."

Analysts warn that if the administration, specifically the Treasury Department, cannot better communicate its programs to the general public, then it runs the risk of a lack of understanding fueling public outrage as hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars get dished out.

"This is a very real concern and I have seen it firsthand," said Scott Talbott, vice president at the Financial Services Roundtable. "What happens is the average person focuses on one concept like 'Treasury bailing out bad banks' and then they stop listening. This incomplete conclusion leads to anger and frustration. These reactions are understandable, but if Treasury increases the public's understanding of its actions, the level of anger and frustration will decrease."

But, said Talbott, there is a way for the Treasury to decipher these complex financial developments for average Americans.

"These are very complicated issues. There are lots of moving parts to each program and they all work in concert. This is Ph.D-level finance work," he said. "However, the issues and programs can be explained in layman's terms."

"It is incumbent on Treasury, Congress, and the industry to deliver these programs in a way that can be understood," Talbott noted.

In a Pew Research Center poll recently conducted, 73 percent of Americans said they understand "the economic situation and the government's economic policies," with only one in four people saying they understand it "very well." One quarter of people also said they understand it "not well" at all.

To increase public comprehension, the administration is clearly trying to explain the myriad of financial crisis measures it has taken in recent months.

The Treasury Department launched a new Web site last week called , "to provide the American people with information about the Obama administration's efforts to stabilize our financial system."

Treasury Department Launches Web site

The Web site features a type of dictionary to help increase people's understanding of common financial terms.

In a statement Tuesday, the Treasury touted its "unique decoder tool that translates frequently used financial language and Financial Stability Plan program names into real terms."

But some people found the decoder just as confusing as the terms themselves.

"This doesn't make any sense at all," said Beth Santos of Washington. "It looks like a high school textbook to me."

For example, the Web site "decodes" the Asset Guarantee Program (AGP) as follows: "Established under section 102 of EESA, allows the department of the Treasury assume a loss position with specified attachment and detachment points on certain assets held by the qualifying financial insitution; the set of insured assets would be selected by the Treasury and its agents in consultation with the financial institution receiving the guarantee."

"There are terms on here I've never seen before and I'm an economics major," said Jonathan Mayo of Washington. "I think it's a little technical. I think a Web site that used more layman's terms would be better. Like this one: 'AGP, section 102 of EESA.' I mean, I don't even know what that is. What is that?"

But Mayo still called the Web site "a good start." He warned that "most people don't understand the crisis -- they know there's a problem, but they don't know why the problem exists."

"No matter if you're in the financial industry or Joe Citizen, you need help understanding it," said Saralee Botler of Alexandria, Va.

A treasury spokesperson said the website is the latest part of the department's effort to help people understand the complicated financial crisis. "Our latest website, financialstability.gov, does help explain the steps we are taking to revive the economy," the spokesman said. "We know it can improve and we're committed to that. In the short weeks since inauguration, Treasury has rolled out a comprehensive five part plan to address the crisis," the spokesperson told ABC News.

And Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner will lead the education effort.

"The Secretary makes it a point reach out to the American people through radio, TV, and print media to help the public understand our plans to bring about economic recovery. It's a complicated mess, but we are taking real steps to help people better understand," the treasury spokesperson said.

In recent weeks, Geithner has repeatedly appeared before Congress and the American people to speak about the crisis. In just the last 10 days alone, he has appeared on all three Sunday morning talk shows, as well as other television appearances. Since taking office in late January, Geithner has also testified on Capitol Hill nearly ten times.

In speeches and press conferences, President Obama himself has tried to help Americans understand the situation.

"The problem is he's got to convince the nation that he's got the economic expertise to understand what's going on, and to do that he's got to use the technical terms correctly," noted Lakoff. "At the same time, he's got to try to explain what's happening and the policy to ordinary people. That's a hard job."

In a joint address to Congress Feb. 24, before discussing the credit crisis, Obama said, "I want to speak plainly and candidly about this issue tonight, because every American should know that it directly affects you and your family's well-being."

"He has made an effort to do that, but I don't think he's succeeded," said Lakoff. "It's very strange because President Obama is the best communicator we've had as president for a very, very long time, and the people who ran his campaign were very good communicators, but they don't seem to have good communicators about economics."

Treasury Encouraged to Improve Communication

In recent weeks, members of Congress and watchdog groups have prodded Treasury to communicate more clearly with the American people.

The Government Accountability Office warned this week that the department must improve its communications and, if they fail, then Congress may be reluctant to give the department more.

"Treasury continues to struggle with developing an effective overall communication strategy that is integrated into TARP operations," the GAO said in a report. "Without such a strategy, Treasury may face challenges, should it need additional funding for the program."

Just after the report was released at a congressional hearing, Treasury spokesman Andrew Williams released a statement in response.

"Over the last month, Treasury has rolled out five core components of our Financial Stability Plan and we will continue communicating to the oversight bodies, the Congress, and the American people as we implement these programs, open up lending for consumers and businesses, and achieve economic recovery," the statement said.

At a hearing March 4, Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus told Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to use more basic words so that "the average American starts to understand."

"This hearing so reminds me of the 'Cool Hand Luke' movie," Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said at the hearing. "What we have here is a failure to communicate."

Another task for the administration's communications team is explaining to the public an alphabet soup of acronyms: EESA, TARP, TALF, PPIP, CAP, CPP -- the list goes on.

"There are all these different policies and people don't know what they are or how they fit together," Lakoff said.

And some terms have been changed overnight.

When the administration unveiled its plan to get bad assets off of banks' balance sheets late last month, it started referring to the assets as "legacy loans" rather than "toxic assets."

Just one more challenge in the administration's ongoing communications battle.

"This is such a hard problem," warned Lakoff. "They need serious help."