Great recession? Mini-depression? What to call this crisis.

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On Tuesday, newly inaugurated President Obama will seek to reassure an America caught in the grips of ... what?

"Economic downturn." "Great turmoil." "A crisis unlike any we have seen in our lifetime."

Those terms, which Mr. Obama has employed in recent days, are presidential waffle words.

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The wrong word

Maybe he's smart not to come up with a catch phrase. The president who most famously tried to do that was Herbert Hoover, or so the story goes. Barely a month after the crash of 1929, apparently not wanting to scare people with the term "panic," he tried a different one in his State of the Union address:

"This hesitation [in business investment] unchecked could in itself intensify into a depression with widespread unemployment and suffering."

It proved more prophetic than politically wise. By the end of his administration, people had started capitalizing the "D." By the late 1930s, it was joined with "Great" and tagged Hoover with economic failure.

A recovery, anybody?
Obama, in fact, has moved the other direction. Using focus-group research, aides have urged members of Congress to use "recovery" instead of "recession," Bloomberg News reported earlier this month.

If politicians are shy about venturing a new term, economists and commentators are not. These run the gamut from alarmist – "The Next Great Depression" (Glenn Beck of CNN) and "Inflationary Depression" (Peter Schiff of Euro Pacific Capital) – to plain vanilla:

"The economy is a depression," writes Peter Morici, economist at the University of Maryland.

One of the challenges of the name game is that it requires projecting the future. Today's downturn would have to get a lot worse to equal the Great Depression.

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