Optics (CongressionalGlossary.com)

From the Congressional Glossary – Including Legislative and Budget Terms

Optics


A “term of art for how a bit of news will be perceived by the public at large, which is only used by people who bill by the hour.”
Troy Senik

“The branch of physics which involves the behavior and properties of light, including its interactions with matter and the construction of instruments that use or detect it.”
Wikipedia

“The viewing lens of public perception. How the media will play a story. Political repercussions are all about optics. Bad optics would be giving the media or the political opposition a juicy story to play with.”
Urban Dictionary


How did optics achieve buzzword status in American politics? In his final On Language column last September, William Safire noted the trend: “‘Optics’ is hot, rivaling content.” When politicians fret about the public perception of a decision more than the substance of the decision itself, we’re living in a world of optics. Of course, elected officials have worried about outward appearances since time immemorial, but optics puts a new spin on things, giving a scientific-sounding gloss to P.R. and image-making.

Though the metaphorical expansion of optics into the political arena feels novel, it has actually been brewing for a few decades. On May 31, 1978, The Wall Street Journal quoted Jimmy Carter’s special counselor on inflation, Robert Strauss, as saying that business leaders who went along with Carter’s anti-inflation measures might be invited to the White House as a token of appreciation. “It would be a nice optical step,” Strauss said. The Journal was not impressed by the idea: the following day, an editorial rebuffed Strauss’s overtures with the line “Optics will not cure inflation.”

Optics,” by Ben Zimer, The New York Times, March 4, 2010


“The optics of a Solyndra default will be bad,” the Office of Management and Budget staff member wrote Jan. 31 in an e-mail to a co-worker. “If Solyndra defaults down the road, the optics will be arguably worse later than they would be today. . . . In addition, the timing will likely coincide with the 2012 campaign season heating up.”

Obama administration e-mails: Giving more taxpayer money to Solyndra was risky,” by Carol D. Leonnig and Joe Stephens, The Washington Post, September 15, 2011

Also see Fiscal Illusion; The Shadow of Enlightenment: Optical and Political Transparency in France 1789-1848.

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