On Feb. 23, 2012, both Pew Research and Gallup released polling on public views of the automaker bailout that had occurred several years before. According to Pew, a majority of Americans held a favorable view of the effort. According to Gallup? A majority disapproved.
We often get mixed results from polls asking similar questions in different ways. But, writing for the Hill, consultant Mark Mellman pointed to one particular word: “bailout.”
“Pew talks about ‘loans,’ ” he wrote, “technically more accurate and certainly less inflammatory, though ‘bailout’ is clearly common parlance. It should surprise no one that Americans prefer ‘loans’ to ‘bailouts.’ ” As they did in this case.
America became obsessed with government bailouts as a result of the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009. Google searches for the term spiked in late 2008, with far smaller spikes over the ensuing years, often around campaign season.
Those searchers were looking for information about the automaker bailout, yes, but also for the bailout of financial firms during the recession. (In early 2009, Gallup found that opinions of both moves were unpopular, with nearly 6 in 10 opposing each idea.)
“Bailout” was used as pejorative even during the 2008 presidential race, with the Republican National Committee using the term to hit Barack Obama’s economic policies — even while George W. Bush was still in the White House, backing bailouts. From 2010 to 2017, more than 100 bills were introduced in Congress focusing on bailouts, according to GovTrack. The majority were focused on preventing bailouts; 60 percent were introduced by Republicans.
As the recession has moved further into history, the term has been used less frequently. But this week, President Trump revived it, accusing Democrats multiple times of seeking a “bailout” for insurers participating in Obamacare.
The implication is as clear now as it was in 2012. A “bailout” is meant to be seen as a handout of our tax dollars to them, some big business that dropped the ball and now needs to be saved.
In this case, that’s not what happened. Under the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — the government subsidizes the insurance policies for low-income Americans. The Obama administration argued that the government’s payments to insurers — the subsidies — were permanently appropriated by Congress. After Republicans sued, a court agreed with them, which means that Congress has to authorize the spending every year. If Congress doesn’t pay insurers, the subsidy process breaks down, and insurers would probably increase prices.
That’s not what you’d traditionally think of as a bailout, any more than it’s a bailout when you commit to paying off a bill over time and then decide that maybe you don’t feel like paying the “bailout” one month. One can certainly view it as a bailout, as one could view nearly any government spending. But this is not much like what happened with the automakers.
So why is Trump calling it a bailout? Because Trump both understands the power of rhetoric and is broadly indifferent to the accuracy of it. If “bailout” is a good way of undercutting something he doesn’t like, he’ll call it a bailout, just as he might, say, call a political rival “Lyin’ Ted” even if that competitor isn’t particularly dishonest.
While the era of big bailouts has receded with the recession, there was a lesson learned in the political world: People hate bailouts. And that alone means we’re likely to hear about alleged “bailouts” more than we perhaps should.