How a 'problem' for Americans becomes an 'opportunity' for politicians

In a defining economic speech, Jeb Bush describes immigration – an issue that riles his GOP conservative base – as 'a huge opportunity ... not a problem.' He's not alone. Projecting optimism is an art of politics in both parties. 

Paul Sancya/AP/File
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) pauses while speaking at a Economic Club of Detroit in Detroit on Feb. 4, 2015.

“An opportunity, not a problem.” A popular political spin move that seeks to diminish the significance of a current or looming concern.

Politics, of course, is all about projecting optimism. And increasingly, politicians in both parties have adopted – either publicly or tacitly – the famous maxim of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D): “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” That’s because, according to the former House member and White House chief of staff, “it’s an opportunity to do things you could not do before.”

In his first major economic speech in February, Jeb Bush described immigration reform – an issue on which he differs dramatically from the GOP’s conservative base – as “a huge opportunity … not a problem.” In outlining his desire for annual economic growth of at least 4 percent, the ex-Florida governor said: “While the political fights go on, we’re missing this opportunity. I view fixing a broken system as a huge opportunity to get to that 4 percent growth.”

More recently, The New York Times looked into whether Texas’s economic woes – the state lost 25,000 jobs in March, and the oil industry has coped with slumping prices for that commodity – could hurt former Gov. Rick Perry politically. Mr. Perry has made the Lone Star State’s growth a cornerstone of his 2016 campaign. Not to worry, said Avik Roy, a senior adviser to Perry’s political action committee: “It’s an opportunity, not a problem, because if the Texas economy continues to do reasonably well, even though the energy sector gets hit, that is only going to strengthen his case, not weaken it.”

At the same time, Mollie Hemingway, a senior editor at The Federalist, shrugged off the idea that the ever-growing Republican presidential field is too large. Appearing on CNN recently, Hemingway said: “I just completely reject the idea that this is a problem to be solved. This is a tremendous journalistic opportunity.... Even candidates who seem maybe to us a little less legitimate might have really good ideas on a particular policy issue.”

None of this is really new. In his 1991 book, “Sleepwalking Through History: America in the Reagan Years,” journalist Haynes Johnson wrote that Ronald Reagan’s budget guru David Stockman regarded the implicit failure of supply-side economic theory “as an opportunity, not a problem. It provided a chance to have gigantic tax cuts and military increases – yet also dismantle despised social welfare programs that had accumulated since the New Deal.” And in 2000, Bill Clinton described the longer ages Americans were living as a “high-class problem,” but added: “The older I get, the more I see that as an opportunity, not a problem.”

Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark write their "Speaking Politics" blog exclusively for Politics Voices. 

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