Americas - Issue 23 - Magazine | Monocle

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View from Washington

Branding helped Obama become president, now it’s selling the nation his recovery deal

By Sasha Issenberg

One of the earliest signs that the $10m has arrived to repair Pittsburgh International Airport’s runway 14-32 (the first airport infrastructure project to get money from Barack Obama’s stimulus package) will not be the presence of cement mixers or asphalt pavers. Instead, one day this spring, the construction site will be marked with a newly designed icon: a stylised take on the American flag with an iconic pair of industrial gears and a sprouting leaf, alongside the name “”.

Each project receiving part of Barack Obama’s $787bn (€590bn) stimulus package is to be branded with the logo. “So every time a citizen sees it, they know it’s coming from the stimulus,” Pennsylvania governor Edward Rendell told Obama at a White House meeting, where he first proposed the idea.

Basic consumer branding techniques are largely foreign to US politics. While Britain’s Tories junked their torch logo for a scribbled tree, in the US both Democrats and Republicans have stuck with their 19th-century animal mascots even though they have happily reconsidered their principles. And other governments have more style: when Denmark’s climate minister recently visited Congress, her aides’ folders bore a modern logo designed for their earth-friendly mission, while portfolios held by American counterparts were embossed with a centuries-old institutional crest.

The White House contacted Mode Project, the Chicago design shop responsible for the ­well-received “O” logo of Obama’s campaign. This time, Mode received a tight assignment: four days to produce a “visible sign of progress” that “speaks to the investments we will make in green energy, infrastructure and health care”, explains White House spokesman Nick Shapiro. The administration was able to quietly assign the project to friendly volunteers without a formal bidding process because the work’s value was assessed at under $3,000. “They’re trying to do things in a different way,” says Steve Juras, who as Mode’s creative director coordinated the work. He is now seeking a framework for outside designers to advise an administration that’s looking for new ways to communicate.

The White House prefers the term “emblem” to logo. It represents a broader campaign to separate the stimulus package from the annual €2.2trn the government spends elsewhere. The website, aides say, will offer unprecedented transparency: all the money will be traceable, down to the Pittsburgh asphalt contractor on the airport project. Obama gave a former Secret Service investigator special auditing powers as stimulus tsar, reporting to vice-president Joe Biden (pictured in front of the logo). “Because nobody messes with Joe,” Obama told Congress.

The challenge is familiar to Obama. He was elected because voters had stopped trusting Washington to get things right. Now, he is the face and figurehead of bureaucracy.

Supporters recognise the ability to govern in hard times will depend less on getting voters to have confidence in him than on trusting the whole system to work.

“If this limited infrastructure spending isn’t done well,” says Governor Rendell, “we will never be able to convince the country that it is worthwhile.”

Mexico is battling to shut down the drugs trade across its border with the US. But Mexico’s ambassador to the US, Arturo Sarakhán, says, “If we succeed, the violence will just move somewhere else.”

That’s why the US government’s Mérida Initiative to counter narcotics trafficking and crime has recently signed agreements with several Central American and Caribbean countries to head off Mexican cartels seeking new trafficking routes.

According to Cesar Guedes from the UN Office on Drugs & Crime, the countries with the fastest growing problems of drug-related violence in the region are (in order) Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Jamaica.

Holes to fill

USA [health]

Jokes about Brits with bad teeth won’t make Americans smile much longer. Official figures show 46 million people in the US now live in “dental shortage areas”. Too many dentists are retiring and not enough are replacing them. Some 29 states are allowing dental hygienists to carry out basic dental work and some states (such as Maine) are training their doctors to pull teeth.

Mind the gap


Income gaps are growing. The gulf between the world’s highest and lowest earning increased in 51 of the 73 countries surveyed in the International Labour Organisation’s World of Work 2008 report.

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