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The Great Miscommunicator

When Barack Obama became president I wondered whether he would have the courage and integrity to bring long absent progressive politics back to the fore in America.  Unhappily, that question has now more or less been answered, though of course anything can happen in the remaining three-and-a-half or seven-and-a-half years of his presidency. 

Here's what I didn't wonder about:  whether his administration would be competent, and whether he would be skilled at the using the most powerful and important tool at a president's disposal, mass communications and the bully pulpit. 

Turns out I shoulda, as Obama so far has failed on both fronts.  This presidency is centrist in every respect, except on those occasions when it is as regressive as George W. Bush's.  That's a huge disappointment, but not a shocker by any means.  Far more surprising, however, is the ineptness of the administration, particularly concerning its communications strategy. 

This should never have happened.  Obama is rightly considered one of the most eloquent and moving speakers in American political history.  I came to that conclusion with some skepticism, too, having seen him campaign in person, and having watched his 2004 convention speech that everyone thought was so spiffy.  I was unimpressed with both.  But since then, Obama has astonished me on a couple of occasions, beginning with his race speech in Philadelphia, and perhaps most recently with his talk in Cairo.  Importantly, it is not the delivery of these addresses - which is actually fairly muted, as political speeches go - but rather their content that shines.  It's been so long since an American politician spoke to the public with this degree of honesty, and demanded as much maturity from listeners, that I couldn't help but be struck by these powerful orations. 

Otherwise, however, I would rate the communications ability of this White House at just slightly above catastrophic.  These failures were on full display last week with the healthcare press conference disaster, but, in fact, they have been in the making right from the beginning. 

In fact, they began in the very first minutes of the administration.  Remember the Lincolnesque eloquence and profundity of the inaugural address?  Yeah, me neither.  That speech was an unbelievably blown opportunity to give a forceful, game-changing oration that could have brought along tens of millions of people through the majesty and power of the occasion.  All the elements were there:  the massive crowds, the global attention, the momentous development of our first black president, the much promised “change”, the many crises warranting it, and the overwhelming public desire to turn away from a disastrously failed prior regime. 

But instead of a majestic oration charting a new course and calling upon us to be the change we need, Obama gave a short and not at all sweet speech to his planetary audience.  It was a talk that was most notable for not being notable.  Do you remember anything from it?  Any of the amazing turns-of-phrase that marked Lincoln's or Kennedy's inaugural prose?  Any of the courageous willingness to call out the economic predators who are destroying the country, as FDR did, or that's president's courage-inducing language, giving hope to a despondent nation?  I don't.  In fact, I don't remember a single word or theme from Obama's inaugural speech. 

Oh well.  I figure everyone's entitled to a dropped ball now and then, though it would be preferable to have that happen some time other than at the most watched political moment of the decade. 

The problem is, of course, that this wasn't just a one-off screw-up.  The essential theme of the last six months is simply this:  Barack Obama has not taken control of the political agenda in America. 

He waited far too long in his new presidency to give a major speech on what ails the country and how we ought to proceed, and when he finally addressed a joint session of Congress for this purpose, he was only somewhat better than at his inaugural address.  Again, does anyone remember anything memorable from that event?  Can anyone list his topics, without making obvious retrospective guesses (it's the economy, stupid)?  Can anyone identify from that virtual state of the union address one call to action, one bold assertion, one controversial claim for which the president was willing to spend political capital?  I honestly cannot. 

Since then, Obama has given a couple of pretty memorable speeches, like the Cairo address, the Arizona State commencement, or the Notre Dame abortion speech.  But even these are deficient, because they smack of lofty verbiage unsupported by serious policy - sort of one-off flights of rhetorical fancy.  For example, in Cairo Obama somewhat forcefully (or as forceful as, pathetically, these things go) told the Israelis to stop expanding their West Bank settlements.  Leave aside for the moment that this is about the least that could or should be demanded concerning these incredibly unhelpful actions exacerbating already illegal developments which, by the way, do absolutely nothing for Israeli security.  Nevertheless, now that Israel has essentially told the president where he can stick his pretty words, do you expect Obama to act?  Will he throw any carrots or sticks toward Jerusalem to get what he wants from an ally for whom the US has done so much?  I'd be plenty surprised if he were to actually back even this minuscule demand with action. 

These speeches, much as I admire them at one level - and I really do - are also narrowly focused and essentially athematic.  That can be okay, up to a point.  Certain problems exist in relatively contained isolation, and can be addressed, to some real degree, apart from others.  Yet, there are also many good reasons for an administration to tell the American people a grand story or two, and to root their more specific policies and actions within the context of those larger themes.  George Bush, for example, told us the tale of the war on terrorism, and he got tremendous legislative mileage and popular support from that unifying theme. 

It was almost entirely deceitful, of course, and it caused horrific damage here and abroad.  But that is no reason necessarily to throw out the communications approach, any more than we should dispense with having presidents because Bush was such a bad one.  In fact, there are good and true and real unifying, thematic stories Obama could be telling, and they would benefit the country enormously.  Imagine, for example, if there was a war on greed, instead of a phony and destructive war on terrorism.  Imagine how far that might go toward framing solutions to so many of our problems, from the economic crisis, to healthcare, to foreign policy militarism, to global warming. 

Of course, the absence of such a recurrent motif - that one in particular - has everything to do with Obama's bigger problems, his utter lack of progressive principle, and the concomitant political courage needed to drive them home.  But what is more astonishing about this administration is the degree to which they can't even get the little stuff right - the things that don't cost you anything, but determine your fate, not least including your chance of getting a second term. 

For instance, Obama has now given something like four or five prime-time press conferences as the primary vehicle to sell his agenda (assuming anyone can figure out what that is - but more on that question in another piece).  Forget for a moment all questions of content and courage.  This approach is just plain strategically stupid, no matter what you're trying to sell. 

It's catastrophically dumb, for at least two reasons.  The lesser of these is that, while Obama seems relatively comfortable in these sessions, they are absolutely not his best communications element.  Nor, likely, would they be anybody's.  What will be a stronger, more forceful argument to the public - on any subject - a precisely tailored and carefully delivered address to the nation, or a semi-spontaneous two-minute response to a reporter's question?  And that assumes, of course, that you're capable of a two-minute response, which Obama evidently is not.  His long, passionless, academic disquisitions, riddled with hesitations, ums, ahs and uhs, sell no one on nothing. 

There actually was, remarkably, a take-away from his press conference last week, but unfortunately, it had almost nothing to do with the intended content of the press conference.  Viewers - especially those who are smart enough not to devote their lives to being political junkies and policy wonks - got nothing from the investment of their time, save perhaps a reluctance to listen to this guy next time around.  They got no healthcare plan from the White House, they got no clarification as to who are the white hats and who are the black hats on this issue, they got no meta-story about responsibility, sacrifice and greed, and they got no rallying call to action. 

What they did get was a presidential cock-up of the first order.  This was the take-away alluded to above, it was as big a digression as is imaginable, and it succeeded in completely undoing everything the press conference was meant to achieve.  This, of course, was the president's foolish commentary on the Henry Louis Gates debacle.  Why he needed to wade into the waters of the particulars of a minor league arrest by a small-town police department (as opposed to, say, a discussion of racial profiling in the abstract) is beyond me, as is why he employed the inflammatory language that he did, especially since he noted then and has conceded in his subsequent apology that part of the problem may have been inappropriate behavior on the part of Gates, not just the cop who (yes, stupidly) arrested him. 

But even had Obama not erred so egregiously, there is a broader strategic question here, which underpins the circumstance leading to this ignominious scene.  And that question is, why - even beyond the fact that Obama's performance is usually only okay at press conferences - why in the world would the White House be using press conferences to sell their agenda???  The very nature of the forum is built around the concept that the audience in the room controls the event.  The press not only control what themes get asked about (what if Obama had gotten questions on Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gates affair, or global warming - and none about healthcare?), but they also choose what specific questions to ask, and how to frame those questions.  Maybe the president wanted to talk about getting universal coverage for the public, but the press asked instead about the party politics of the legislation on Capitol Hill.  Maybe Obama wanted to exert leadership on the topic, but the press asked questions that made him out to have lost control of the issue's agenda. 

The point is that, even if Obama was especially skilled at press conferences, like Jack Kennedy was, this is absolutely the wrong forum for the purpose of rallying support around an issue critical to both the nation and the fate of his presidency.  Instead, you give a televised address from the Oval Office, or a high profile speech somewhere appropriate.  By doing so, you control the content, you think out ahead of time precisely what you want to say, you pick the emotional pitch of the delivery, you design the setting to maximize the impact of whatever message you're trying to get across, you get the bonus of presidential gravitas inherent to the setting, and you stage manage everything about the presentation to align with the communications goals for it that you pre-establish before the first word of the speech is even composed.  Alternatively, if you utilize the press conference format instead, you lose every single one of these benefits, in part or in whole. 

The second most astonishing thing about the failure of the Obama people to get this is that presidents have understood these principles at least since FDR gave his fireside chats.  Moreover, ever since Michael Deaver and Ronald Reagan brought Hollywood methods (and values) to the presidency, political pros have not only understood these principles, but have mastered them to enormous effect (and often enormously pernicious effect - a la Reagan, or Bush with the bullhorn on the World Trade Center pile).  How is it possible, in 2009, that the Obama people don't know how to do the same?  I mean, picking the appropriate medium for the message you're trying to convey is Presidential Communications 101. 

Which brings us to the first most astonishing aspect of this failure.  Are these really the same people - including Obama himself - who brought this guy out of nowhere and got him to the White House?!?!  Are these really the same folks who ran a strategically brilliant, highly disciplined and nearly flawless campaign, one that no one saw coming, and one in which a relative unknown whose national experience consisted of one big speech and two years time in the Senate managed to topple a shoe-in heir-apparent and vanquish a highly regarded war hero?!?!  Really? 

I don't even recognize these people anymore.  It's disappointing enough that their politics are so dismal (why bother toppling Hillary, only to reprise Bill, who's hardly any different than George?).  But could they really be so incompetent and anemic at the basics of governing as well? 

Of course, the two questions are not unrelated. 

Indeed, it may well be that the Obama administration is so weak at marketing precisely because it realizes that a strong marketing campaign would instantly reveal that they actually have almost nothing to sell.

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David Michael Green

David Michael Green

David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.

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