As a communications professional, my assessment of the Obama Administration’s communications strategy is that it may be the most inept performance I have ever seen of any political regime.
Crisis communications is not a silver bullet. Some thing simply cannot be repaired. The whole point of communications in general, however, is that the job should never be challenging if the entity the communicator works for doesn’t provide fodder for the opposition.
The Obama Administration has repeatedly handed its opposition ammunition — not 9mm bullets, but everything from Stinger missiles to bunker-busters. The result is the appearance, to this citizen, of a White House on the verge of panic. I’m not the only one. When legendary far-left blabbermouth James Carville tells the White House it’s time to panic, it’s time to panic (That’s no diss on Mr. Carville. I love watching him.).
Almost none of this has to do with the truth or facts of any given situation. It has to do with how it all appears. Generally, it makes Mr. Obama appear like an amateur politician.
It Started Out So Well!
The Obama campaign had it made in 2008. The GOP had put up the Grumpy Old Troll against a PR juggernaut — the first viable Black presidential candidate. Young and slick vs. old and creaky. The backlash against the Bush presidency had peaked — people were tired of the war in Iraq, gasoline had hit $4, and the mainstream media so controlled the political narrative that it would’ve taken a literal disaster to push the Obama campaign off-message. Not only did the GOP face an uphill battle anyway, but now they were facing a wave of messaging that was hard to ignore: hope and change. So powerful was this message that, despite it and the candidate it spoke for being utterly lacking in substance, it swayed enough of the electorate to create an historic moment for America. The country had elected a God. I don’t need to tell you how this photo comes off:
The power with which this message was received allowed the Democratic Congress to ram through a $790 billion “stimulus” without permitting the bill to be read. Forty-eight hours promised to read a 1000 page bill that spends $790 billion? Oh, and then Congress lied about that time frame, and voted on it.
So in the communications world, we ask, “What message do the American people take away from this?”
Your voice doesn’t matter.
The American people were never consulted. They weren’t given a chance to express an opinion to their representatives, who also didn’t have any time to read the bill.
Contrast this, if you will, with one of the most successful television programs of all time: American Idol. Why is it successful? Because of the message it sends to viewers:
Your voice matters a lot!
Furthermore, there’s a subtext to the bill passage:
We’re doing it so quickly because we’re afraid that if you get a look at what’s in this bill, you’ll pressure us to change or discard it.
The GOP got branded as the “party of no”, as the bill passed without a single GOP vote. And rightly so — not just because the stimulus would fail, but because of the manner in which it was foisted on the American people.
The next communications debacle came with Obamacare. Rather than focus on jobs, which is all the American people cared about (and still care about), the Administration jumped into the next phase of their agenda. They just assumed the “stimulus” would take care of jobs, when anyone with a basic economics education could have told them it wouldn’t.
In communications, we talk about “optics” — that is, how something will appear to the public. Democrats arrogantly strolled into the 2009 Town Halls thinking the public would just love Obamacare. The optics tell a different story. And this went on for months! The message from the American people was clear. At the time the bill was passed, polls showed an average of 50% opposed it and 37-39% supported it. To this day, those same numbers apply with respect to repealing the bill — 50% in favor, 39% opposed.
If this were some small bill, you could get away with 50% support. But this bill created a massive overhaul of the American health care system, reaching deep into the lives of almost every American; a bill that (again) Congress was told to vote on first before reading; rammed through via budget reconciliation rather than a straight up-down vote; and the aspects of the bill still are not fully understood.
The message from Americans was clear: we do not support this bill.
The message to American was also clear: Congress doesn’t care.
Mr. Obama has made repeated insults towards Israel, damaging relations with our most important ally in the world. Talk about poor optics — walking out on Prime Minister Netanyahu allegedly to have dinner with his family! Contrast this with the steadfast alliance and respect President Bush afforded Israel. Now contrast Mr. Obama’s behavior and his insulting speech with that of Mr. Netanyahu’s the next day.
It doesn’t matter what the truth is behind Mr. Obama’s actions. What matters is how the White House Communications staff let him make himself look. And he looked like a man who threw Israel under the bus.
Bin Laden Assassination
This should’ve been a slam-dunk communications victory. Instead, Mr. Obama came off as a man who tried to hog credit, when credit was due elsewhere. Think about the generosity Americans would have shown Mr. Obama had he shown the kind of generosity shown in this article.
Love me! Please!
How does it look to the regular folks, as Bill O’Reilly calls us, when unemployment is still over 9%, folks are losing their homes, and Mr. Obama says he’ll present a big new jobs bill … after he returns from vacation? Sure, everyone needs a vacation, but what message does it send?
My vacation is more important than you people.
Contrast this with Bill Clinton’s greatest asset: his ability to listen to whomever spoke to him, and then responding directly to them. Regardless of whether or not it was genuine, it sold.
Now here comes Mr. Obama’s big Congressional speech. First, he tries to horn in on a Republican debate. Even a congressional layman knows that you privately discuss the matter with top Republican leaders first. Instead, the optics made it look like the President was trying to stamp down the importance of the debate … and that blew up in his face. The result was that he looked like he was playing petty politics. At least when Reagan demanded that Tip O’Neil acquiesce to his demand to speak to the House in ’86 it was over a policy issue already written and on the table — not a campaign speech about a yet-to-be-written piece of legislation that sounded exactly like the February 2009 speech/venture socialism pitch.
What’s the message?
I am either incapable or afraid to take the legislative lead.
The embarrassments keep piling on. The “If you love me, you got to help me pass this bill” quote? Again, what is the subtext?
I can’t do this all by myself. I am incapable of leading. You need to help me.
Every time I think things can get worse for Jay Carney and the Kommunications Korps, we get something like the laugh-out-loud AttackWatch! This not only reeks of panic, but plays into the Right’s political criticism of the Left: that they want to censor freedom of speech. It also creates the unintentional comparison to an Orwellian program in which one is asked to inform on one’s neighbor. The subtext (all together now):
We are afraid.
Wow. Again, ask yourself, “what would Bill Clinton do?” Do you think Mr. Clinton would have ever let himself get into this position? He at least had the political savvy to settle his scores behind the scenes. This President has no such skills.
These are the messages that the President of the United States is sending to the world.
If you aren’t panicked, you should be. And so should the White House.