If stories in the Washington Post and New York Times are correct, the Obama administration is poised to react in exactly the wrong fashion to Scott Brown’s victory in the Massachusetts Senate race. As former communications director Anita Dunn explains, “What the president needs to do is go explain to the people exactly why what has been done is going to get us on a better path for the future.” It’s not that the administration has misread the election message coming out of Tuesday’s race – in contrast to many pundits (see the latest it’s all about health care diatribe by Charles Krauthammer), Obama understands, as he told George Stephanopolous, that Brown’s victory was rooted in the “economic frustrations of the middle class.” But the administration’s response appears to center on focusing or clarifying its communication strategy, in order to explain what Obama has been doing to stem rising unemployment. Apparently senior aides are pulling a page from their experiences “during the toughest moments of the 2008 campaign.” One aspect of this strategy, Dunn said, will be to contrast Obama’s efforts to date “with the Republicans’ refusal to do anything.” That new strategy was unveiled yesterday when a new “fighting” Obama took his retooled “populist” message on the road to Ohio and promised to fight for The People against banks, Republicans and everything evil. In short, no change in policy – instead, a change in communications.
Hmmm… how well did that strategy work with independent voters in Massachusetts? When Coakley finally awoke to the fact that she was in danger of losing a seat held for almost half a century by Ted Kennedy, she went on the attack by blaming economic conditions on the failed policies of the Bush-Cheney administration, a tactic echoed by Obama when he came to campaign on her behalf. The problem, of course, is that it was Coakley and the Democrats who were perceived by independents in Massachusetts to be in charge. In trying to portray his administration as working on behalf of the people, Obama runs the same risk. In Ohio, Obama’s populist attack coincided with new state figures showing Ohio’s jobless rate going up to 10.9%, almost a point higher than the national average. Meanwhile, the stock market nosedived in reaction to the Obama administration’s plans to regulate banks.
I can’t say I’m surprised by the decision by Obama’s aides to react to Coakley’s defeat by focusing on retooling and sharpening their message. One of the significant weaknesses of the candidate-centered, media-based presidential selection system in place since the 1970’s is that it teaches presidents and their senior aides the wrong lessons for dealing with flagging popular support. On the campaign trail, the key to victory is to win the news cycle by keeping the media focused on stories that help your candidacy and/or hurt your opponent. Staying on message throughout the campaign is crucial, as is immediately going on the attack whenever charges are leveled against you, and trying to shift the narrative in reaction to bad events. Too often, presidents take office and surround themselves with the same (often young) aides who cut their teeth on the campaign trail, and who are convinced that the key to governing is to reprise what worked during a campaign. That means winning the media cycle and staying on message. It is easy for aides with a campaign background who are working in the White House bubble to let the latest headlines in the major papers or television broadcast dictate governing tactics. If there is a weakness to the Obama administration so far, it is their propensity to focus too much on media and communication strategy – whether it is reacting to falling approval ratings by pushing back against Fox News or responding to Brown’s victory by vowing to retool the administration’s communications strategy in the guise of a new populist, “fighting” President. Anita Dunn, the former communications strategist who evidently still advises Obama, seems particularly susceptible to this misguided thinking.
This is not the first time a president has sought to sharpen his media image to deal with flagging popular support caused by a tanking economy. Jimmy Carter, in his famous “malaise speech” (in which he never actually used the word malaise) followed a similar strategy as the nation was mired in “stagflation” in 1979. He took to the airwaves to explain that what really ailed the nation was a “crisis in confidence.” In fact, what ailed the country were long gas lines and shrinking paychecks. A year later Carter was voted out of office.
To be fair, Obama certainly is not blaming Brown’s victory on the public’s spiritual and moral failings. He’s picked a better target: banks, insurance companies and Republicans. But the premise behind both speeches is the same: that bad economic news can be countered by employing campaign-style rhetoric heavy on symbolism and light on specific policies. A retooled communication strategy is not the solution for rising unemployment – visible and effective efforts to create jobs are. Brown didn’t win in Massachusetts because Obama, or state Democrats, failed to “give voice” to the economic frustrations of the middle class – he won because unemployment went up during December to 9.4%, the highest level in Massachusetts since Obama took office. No amount of rhetoric is going to convince people that Obama’s policies are working – that requires a drop in unemployment and more visible signs of an economic recovery. After a year in office, this recession is officially perceived to be – unfairly or not – Obama’s and the Democratic Congress’, and they are either going to do something about it (or at least appear to take credit should the economy turn around on its own) or get voted out of office, beginning in the 2010 midterms. It happened to Republicans in 2006, to George H. W. Bush in 1992 and to Carter before them. A strategy based on attacking Republicans, rather than working with them, risks leaving the Democrats holding the bag if the economy has not showed visible signs of a turnaround in 10 months.
I’m not one of those who thinks the Obama administration has made very many mistakes in its short time in office – in fact, I think Obama has done pretty well, considering the problems he inherited and his lack of national and executive experience. But I don’t know of any president – even those far more experienced than this one – who didn’t encounter a few missteps in their first year. This, in my view, threatens to be one of them.
I’m sorry, but – with apologies to Strother Martin in Cool Hand Luke, the problem here is NOT a failure to communicate. It’s a failure to create jobs.