The Meaning Of “Fine”

President Obama stepped into a controversy yesterday, when at a morning press conference he said about the economy:  “The private sector’s doing fine.”

Mitt Romney and other Republicans, ecstatic to be handed such a plum, jumped all over the statement, citing statistics like the unemployment rate and the number of home foreclosures to demonstrate that the economy is not doing fine and to portray the President as out of touch.  By the end of the day, the President was in wholesale retreat, saying:  “it is absolutely clear that the economy is not doing fine.”  We’ll have to see whether this incident is just one of those silly Washington, D.C. tempests in a teapot, or whether the President’s remark strikes a deeper chord with the American people.  (In that regard, the President’s constant fund-raising activities with high-money donors and Hollywood stars probably isn’t helping him dodge the “out of touch” label.  But who’d have thought that Mitt Romney, of all people, would take a crack at depicting President Obama as “out of touch” with ordinary folks?)

For now, though, I’d like to just pause for a moment to think about word choice.  “Fine” is a pretty elastic word.  At our firm, some partners use it to describe associate performance that is minimally adequate — a kind of air quotes “fine” — whereas others use it as synonymous for “good.”  Coin collectors will tell you that “fine” is in the top half of the scale — better than poor, fair, good, and even very good, but not at the extremely fine or mint level.  What meaning did the President intend to convey?  “Fine” as in people are not walking around wearing barrels and selling apples on the streets, or something else?  Given his later retraction of sorts, we’ll probably never know.

I’ll give the President the benefit of the doubt that he was using “fine” in a way that is consistent with our current economic reality; I don’t think it’s fair to seize on one word out of the thousands he speaks every day.  I also think what he said immediately after saying that the private sector is doing “fine” is more significant, anyway.  He went on to add:  “Where we’re seeing weaknesses in our economy have to do with state and local government, oftentimes cuts initiated by, you know, governors or mayors who are not getting the kind of help that they have in the past from the federal government and who don’t have the same flexibility as the federal government in dealing with fewer revenues coming in.”

There’s no mistaking the meaning of that statement; he thinks we need to spend more on public employee jobs in order to help our economy.  I could not disagree with him more on that point — and I think that, given recent election results in Wisconsin and California and elsewhere, that is where the President’s views might truly be “out of touch” with those of the majority of Americans.