strategic communications manager
By Richard E. Nicolazzo
In a recent fiery campaign stump speech, Vice President Joe Biden delivered a crisp, easy-to-grab sound bite when he said, “Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive.”
Why didn’t President Obama think of that?
With the Presidential election in the home stretch, it’s time to look back and grade the nation’s chief executive on his communications performance.
After capturing more than 64 million popular votes and thrashing John McCain 365-162 on the 2008 electoral scorecard, Obama assumed what is arguably the toughest job on the planet.
The new President, without executive branch experience, had to manage two wars, protect the country from terrorists, stabilize a shaky financial system on the verge of collapse, rebuild a sagging economy and deal with the ever-explosive Middle East.
In short, he entered the world of governing and “managing expectations” by making commitments, chief among them, to rebuild the economy and create jobs.
With the major issues in the U.S. (and the world) so complex, contentious and seemingly unsolvable, in my view, a successful presidency comes down to not only what was accomplished but how those achievements have been communicated to the American public.
President Obama’s failure to communicate may lie in his deep-rooted belief that if you sit with rational people and make compelling arguments, something will be accomplished. The problem is, politics is not a rational discussion.
Things got off to a good start four years ago. Just 24 days after his inauguration, the President’s $800 million stimulus package passed Congress. Remember the “rebuilding America” signs across the country? Somehow, that accomplishment was lost in the “noise of the campaign.”
Using every ounce of political clout and goodwill possible, what is commonly called Obama-Care was passed by Congress. Presidential insiders advised Obama to settle for a “skinny” alternative that would have eased in change. Instead, the President insisted on the whole package.
The result is legislation that polarized the American public (despite a Supreme Court victory) and muddied the waters. If you asked average Americans to explain how the new health care plan will affect them, my guess is nine of 10 couldn’t do it. The communications challenge of such a massive new law has overwhelmed the White House.
Vanishing Press Conferences
In terms of direct outreach to Americans, Obama maintains his weekly video address which emanates every Saturday morning from the White House website. But let’s face it, this is static means of communications that excites no one. Do you ever hear anyone talking about these addresses when you head back to work on Mondays?
Given his remarkable oratory skills, I’m surprised Obama has followed in the footsteps of his predecessor George W. Bush and de-emphasized the press conference. People still refer to JFK’s press encounters in the 1960s as a masterful way to communicate messages. The nation also warmed to President Roosevelt’s fireside chats, and past presidents like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton knew how to communicate and connect with Americans by developing platforms, symbols and messages that resonated with the public.
This year, the President has held only one fully-interactive, multi-issue press conference. As a candidate four years ago, Obama, then a senator, mused aloud about holding a news conference every month. In reality, at one point he went 308 days between press corps encounters, even exceeding President George W. Bush’s longest gap of 204 days.
Many experts believe the dwindling frequency of these East Room events stems from the fragmentation of prime time TV and the prominence of other social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook. Still, if done properly, a White House press conference is the most accessible and powerful venue for Americans to not only learn the views of their leader but observe, understand and analyze the thinking.
In reality, millions of Americans running around with iPhones, iPads, Blackberrys and other electronic devices have greater access than ever to see their President in action. Why not give them the opportunity?
At the convention and on the campaign trail Obama has continued to emphasize that he’s fulfilled his core promises: pulling the country back from the economic abyss, getting the troops out of Iraq and setting a plan to withdraw from Afghanistan, rescuing the auto industry, killing the world’s top terrorist, imposing Wall Street regulations, signing a nuclear treaty with Russia, and cutting taxes for the middle class.
What’s been much harder is communicating a vision on the economy that makes Americans believe that unemployment rates over 8% are declining. This is where rhetoric collides with reality. The President can’t change the numbers, so trying to communicate good news juxtaposed against government statistics becomes the ultimate communications challenge. This is an area where Obama has likely overpromised, falling into the trap of many past presidents.
Numbers released on Sept. 7 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate the economy remains stuck in low gear, producing fewer jobs and stagnant paychecks. Although the actual unemployment rate fell to 8.1% from 8.3%, some 12 million Americans are still looking for work and thousands have given up.
With unemployment stuck above the 8% mark and his approval rating below 50%, Obama is clearly in the political fight of his life. Consequently, as a communicator, he has lost some of the eloquence of his earlier campaign and turned this race into a series of cheap verbal attacks about his opponent. This might make great headlines, but does not allow Americans to understand the importance of the substantive issues we face.
While Obama’s convention speech was eloquent and forceful, it lacked the punch of 2008. Saying he was “mindful of his own failings,” the President stuck to the long-term approach in a time when every American wants the economic pain to stop now.
“I won’t pretend the path I’m offering is quick or easy…You didn’t elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear. You elected me to tell you the truth. And the truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve our challenges.”
If that’s the case, why didn’t he say that a long time ago?
Admittedly, presidents always have a difficult agenda. As President Eisenhower said to JFK the day before Kennedy was inaugurated, “You’ll find that no easy problems ever come to the President of the United States. If they are easy to solve, somebody else has solved them.”
Nevertheless, in my view, Obama’s failure to consistently communicate his key messages on important policy issues such as the economic recovery and jobs may ultimately cost him his job.
Joe M. Grillo, a partner at Nicolazzo & Associates, contributed to this blog.
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