Jay Carney faced the press today, and… Yikes! That was rough!
On some level, you have to respect Carney. He could have woken up, faxed in a resignation Pat Riley style, rented an office near Farragut Square and started counting money. Instead, he chose to answer questions in the face of Scandalpalooza. And even if he had a rough day, none of the scandals are impeachable.
They are damaging, though. In fact, the last week and a half has heaped layer after layer of bad news on the White House doorstep. The mid-term elections are now 18 months away, and the window for putting up any meaningful legislative wins is maybe 10-12 months. President will have a tougher time advancing his agenda while responding to all the bad news. Ranked below are the President’s top speed bumps (that we know about so far today), with 1 being the most disruptive to the President’s agenda and 5 the least:
- DOJ vs. AP - People appreciate unfairness, so the IRS scandal will have legs. But no reporter will have any trouble understanding the First Amendment threats posed by the Justice Department skimming reporters’ phone records.
- IRS vs. Tea Party Groups – Political players wielding government power against their enemies is easy to understand, and makes for a simple story to write.
- Benghazi – Really, what’s the worst part? The administration’s keystone response to the embassy attack? The lies about what caused the attack? The fact that it looks like the President and his underlings were less than forthcoming due to the impending election? This is pretty complex – for scandals looking to catch on, complex is bad.
- Gosnell - During the election cycle, progressive groups tried (largely successfully) to reframe the abortion debate by talking about narrow hypotheticals. From the White House’s perspective, the silver lining of the week’s tri-scandals is that it takes mainstream attention away from the Gosnell verdict. It will help motivate pro-life advocates, but its broader messaging implications will be muted.
- Obamacare - Small business owners are already feeling the pinch. Kathleen Sebelius has been doing her “Secretary BoJangles” routine trying to fund advertising and encourage signups (like it’s some kind of high school club).
(If I missed anything, or if you disagree, leave a comment or yell at me on Twitter.)
Last Sunday, President Obama addressed Ohio State’s Class of 2013 thusly:
Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems. Some of these same voices also do their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices.
Cool speech, wasn’t it? Here’s a quick rundown of some of the big headlines over the last week:
- The Administration messed up in Benghazi – and ABC news showed they directly lied to the American people about the root cause of the attack.
- The IRS specifically and deliberately targeted the President’s political foes during the 2012 election cycle.
- The Obama Justice Department snagged phone records – both professional and personal – for AP reporters. They didn’t say why.
Politico greeted night owls and early risers to a fantastic article about the White House press strategy. The tenets have been the same for every President, controlling the President’s public image through strategic use of information - but no President has had the options that Barack Obama has.
Since great minds steal, anyone seeking to copy the Obama team’s strategy should consider three major points:
1. News outlets are no longer the gatekeepers for mass media exposure.
White House photographers have been commonplace in the past few decades; Politico notes that the current White House has made those photographs ubiquitous on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. That these channels exist allow the President to go over the media’s head, but without mass media branding they wouldn’t work as well.
Ronald Reagan and his predecessors faced three networks and a handful of national newspapers. Bill Clinton presided over the rise of cable news networks, as MSNBC and Fox joined CNN to increase scrutiny on the sturm and drang of partisan politics; online media helped increase that during George W. Bush’s administration.
Big News is now the victim of its own success. There’s now a general awareness of political comings and goings, enough that political topics spill into entertainment shows. And think about all the channels on your TV dial today. Quasi-news shows – like The Daily Show, The View, and the Today Show – now allow politicians to maintain visibility without getting asked hard questions. President Obama will have plenty of eyeballs on him when he fills out his NCAA brackets this year, but ESPN’s Stuart Scott probably won’t ask him any pointed questions about Benghazi or gun control.
(Sidebar: Wouldn’t it be hilarious if Obama did run into a tough line of questioning on ESPN of all places? ”So you like Duke to come out of the South Region. What did you think was going to come out of the south when you shipped those guns to Mexico?”)
2. Brand matters
This visibility serves to underscore a certain identity. Visibility in and of itself is one thing, but carefully selecting the outlet where you’re seen helps create a message.
Obama wants voter to identify with him personally, so sharing his love for sports on ESPN helps. Brief interviews to network anchors, fluff interviews on The View, and vague calls to action in the State of the Union all serve to underscore that he’s in control, but not so wonkish that he would be unapproachable.
Obama is able to pull this strategy off now because he is the President, has had two national campaigns, and is a known personality to most Americans. During his 2008 primary campaign, he had to create that interest by launching a campaign that looked and felt different from traditional campaigns – from the Pepsi-ish logo to the embracing of supporter-created materials. Sarah Palin tried to eschew the “lamestream media” in favor of communication via Facebook post – but her story was already written for her when she abruptly resigned as governor. Her branding efforts were far more traditionally political, so they predictably flopped when she tried to use non-traditional outlets to reinforce them.
Palin’s attempt to bypass the media is a good example of how a clumsy, ham-fisted attempt to mimic Obama’s White House is doing can backfire. If you’re running for dog catcher and there’s no demand for media accessibility, some of these won’t work; however if you’re the person everyone wants to interview, you can call some of the shots.
3. Working harder and smarter trumps media bias.
For decades – decades! – Republicans have groused about media bias. They’ll point to surveys that show reporters tend to vote Democrat, and they’ll moan that no Republican will get the same treatment as Obama.
There will always be folks like Chris Matthews who fall in love with candidates like Obama and worship them with an illogical fervor that gives cult followers a run for their money. But the creation of good coverage by the Obama Administration is more the result of meticulous work than a happy accident of reporter preference. The communications team knows where the President needs to be seen and how to make the most out of each channel they use. Backed with the currency of access to the White House, they put themselves in a position to write the rules of engagement – and aren’t shy about doing so.
Will [INSERT GOP CANDIDATE HERE] be able to create a carbon copy in 2016? Probably not in terms of outcome. But in terms of overall attitude, strategies, and tactics, a lot of what the Obama Team does is worth swiping.
Politico points out today how the Obama 2012 machine has been thrilled with Rick Perry’s attacks on Mitt Romney, occasionally piling on to wound the erstwhile Massachusetts governor. The reasoning goes that Perry (or anyone else from the GOP field) would be easier for the President to beat in the general election.
That may sound familiar. In 2008, with their own nomination pretty much decided, some Republicans went to the polls in late primary states intending to affect the Democratic ballot. In Texas, a vote for then-candidate Obama was a way to put the final nail in the coffin for the Clinton Era. In Virginia, some Republicans insisted on voting for Obama to encourage the Democrats to nominate an inexperienced, first-term Senator as their nominee.
Whether as part of an “Anybody But Hillary” movement or whether they believed that Obama was the weaker candidate, would those Republicans vote the same way if they could go for a spin in Doc Brown’s DeLorean? If they had a hot tub time machine, do you think the 2007 Patriots would have rooted a bit harder for the talented-on-paper Packers or the Cowboys to come out of the NFC for Superbowl 42?
Similarly, Team Obama may think Rick Perry, with his low poll numbers and early campaign missteps, would be a more attractive opponent in November 2012. It certainly looks like that match up would favor the President prohibitively – and the President looks good up against any of the other GOP hopefuls, too. It isn’t even November of 2011 yet, though – and a year is a long time.
Every major professional sport except college football has an entire system to determine the best team. That doesn’t stop those covering each sport from postulating who the best team is on a week-to-week basis. Since the Presidential race has become an odd mix of reality television, sports, and horse racing, why not do the same?
Here’s what my white board looks like this week:
1. Barack Obama. Dean Wormer: Dead! Niedermeyer: Dead! Gaddafi: Dead! The President looked Presidential this week, and American Crossroads polling indicated his “tax the rich” rhetoric has a chance to resonate.
2. Mitt Romney. The sheen of inevitability was nicked in the last debate, but Romney continues to line up endorsements.
3. Rick Perry. The signs of life Perry showed in the Nevada debate should re-energize supporters, donors, and the rest of the campaign infrastructure for a short time. His points on domestic energy development, which he has been bringing up in debates consistently, give him a positive issue to run on that no other serious candidate is talking about.
4. Herman Cain. Cain is driving the Republican discussion with his 9-9-9 plan. The row over his pro-life beliefs won’t be a deal-breaker because there is no meat to it, but may be indicative of a more serious problem with message discipline. His ability to do the blocking and tackling it takes to build an election-winning organization is still suspect. Still the front-runner for the Vice President slot on the GOP ticket.
5. Ron Paul. Paul is still the life of the party. The troop withdrawal in Iraq will give him another chance to tell the rest of the party he told them so.
6. Michelle Bachmann. Her staff in New Hampshire wasn’t all that important, anyway. Iowa is Bachmann’s make-or-break playing field.
7. Chris Christie. Despite denials and endorsements to the contrary, still more likely to be President in 2013 than the last two people on this list. On the outside chance that Romney and Perry wind up in a brokered convention stalemate in August 2012, Christie looks like an obvious choice to unite the party. Sure, it’s a long shot, but still more likely than…
8. Rick Santorum. Santorum looked shrill and childish going after Romney in the Nevada debate, but he made his points. He could wind up as the kamikaze of the debate season.
9. John Huntsman. Still waiting for his mojo. His candidacy is tough to define, though his shots at Herman Cain in the previous debate were witty and clever.
Friday’s downgrade of America’s credit rating and the subsequent stock market skittishness naturally means a new round of speculation on President Obama’s re-election chances. This week Gallup released state-by-state job approval numbers that paint a picture of an incumbent with some work to do.
President Obama’s approval ratings are listed as “below average” (under 44% or so) in 18 states, representing 162 electoral votes. Including three other typically “red” states where his ratings are average but still low (Arizona, Mississippi, and Georgia) would bring that total to 195. Throwing in North Carolina and Virginia – traditionally Republican states the President carried by narrow margins in 2008 – the number jumps to 223, or 47 electoral votes shy of victory. That scenario would make Ohio and Florida (with a combined 47 electoral votes) especially critical.
Should this be cause for Republican celebration? Not so fast.
Not factored into these numbers, of course, is election performance – the poll measures only approval rating, not his performance against specific opponents or even the “Generic GOP candidate.” He has 173 electoral votes in his pocket where he has above average approval ratings, plus another 45 in states which he is likely to win (Wisconsin, Michigan, Washington, and Oregon). That gives the President a total of 218 electoral votes in house money. And Presidential house money is worth more than challenger house money.
As Gallup notes, George W. Bush’s approval ratings were pretty low heading into the 2004 race – around 48%. His massive campaign apparatus found his supporters in the right places and got them to the polls – the type of blocking and tackling the Obama campaign was good at in 2008. Gallup’s numbers may seem optimistic for Republicans, but they actually paint a pretty good picture for the President.
This commercial ran during the MLB All-Star game this evening:
So a car company which is only in existence now right now due to a massive government bailout funded by taxpayers, feels their product is so amazing that it deserves a blank check for any repairs.
That sounds about right.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am being paid to work on this issue – but wasn’t paid for this video. If you feel like taking action, you can send a comment to the Obama Administration to support offshore drilling in the Chukchi Sea.
While the Republican contenders and pretenders debated in the Granite State, the Obama Campaign quietly kicked off what it hopes will be a “summer of team building” with an online volunteer briefing. Organizing for America’s Mitch Stewart led the largely unsurprising session, sketching out the campaign’s overall plan for recruiting volunteers and getting out the vote. There were, however, some tactical points that were worth noting.
Just like the 2008 incarnation of the Obama campaign – and, really, any organization worth its salt – Obama/Biden ’12 seems rightly obsessed with amassing volunteers and securing firm commitments to action. The central effort seemed to be a push to ask volunteers to host house parties, recruiting After Stewart’s overview of the basics, the webinar asked participants whether they could either host or attend a house party (along with inviting others to attend as well).
The neatest part came at the end, when participants were invited to turn on their webcams. A collage of the real-time feeds allowed participants to see and even wave to each other:
This is another early preview of what figures to be a consistent theme for Obama ’12. Remember that the announcement video for the re-election effort did not feature the candidate, instead focusing on campaign surrogates and volunteers. Other faces – including, wherever possible, those of grassroots supporters – will allow the Obama campaign to create a wall of separation between the candidate and the dirty business of politics.
The result? Obama looks Presidential while his subordinates ramp up the country’s first billion-dollar campaign.