DC Influencer: Arthur Brooks, president, AEI

Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), speaks with Jaimy Lee about the messaging behind free enterprise

Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), speaks with Jaimy Lee about the messaging behind free enterprise

How have you been able to position the AEI since the start of President Obama's administration?

Brooks: The AEI was already strongly positioned as one of the intellectual centers of the free enterprise movement and has been for 72 years. We're doing the same kind of thing we did under the Bush administration, but it got more notice when Obama took over because he was clearly more hostile to the free enterprise system. That has made AEI's voice more important in the policy debates than it has been in the past.

When an incoming administration and Congress openly says that the free enterprise system is the reason that we're in crisis, we have to vigorously defend the system that will probably be the only thing that gets us out of the crisis.

What challenges exist in communicating and ensuring that pro-free enterprise messages to the public and policy-makers get across?

Brooks: In DC, there's just so much noise. We're saying that we need to back up and talk about principle, as opposed to the raw power that typically characterized the political debates. It gave us a big opportunity to do the PR of the free enterprise message and actually talk about how to, in essence, sell free enterprise.

The central message of this administration is that the reason for the financial crisis is that the free enterprise system didn't work and needs to be largely replaced with bigger government. The trouble with that view is that it's shared by 30% of Americans (Pew Research Center, March 2009). When something like the financial crisis occurs, it's a huge political game-changer.

The data is clear. People like the idea of individual liberty, of individual opportunity as opposed to group rights, and entrepreneurship. They're part of American culture. We need to talk about that. That's what the free enterprise movement is all about. Free enterprise, if we're going to sell it, is a moral issue, not an economic one.

Within the spectrum of communicating free enterprise, are these points getting made?

Brooks: We're getting better. AEI has had its profile go up a lot in the past year. It's because our message is one America needs, and we're also building out our communications effort hugely. We're making an increased effort to remind people that we're a values-driven cultural organization.

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