If you participate in social media, you’ve probably heard talk of the Obama scandals. TargetPoint released this graphic showing what people are talking about, and how they’re taking it. The news is not good for the current administration:
Thus, this week’s Bad News Power Rankings practically write themselves:
- IRS vs. Tea Partiers. (Last week: 2) The parade of Administration officials who either change their story or won’t tell it moved this one up the list. Rasmussen reports 60% of Americans feel it’s pretty likely that other agencies also targeted conservative groups, meaning that people don’t view the IRS’s actions as a one-off.
- Benghazi. (Last week: 3) Amazingly, independents believe in an Obama Administration cover-up more than Republicans.
- DOJ vs. AP. (Last week: 1) This one has been relatively quiet this week, but still makes reporters sympathetic.
- Fast and Furious. Of course, it would be nice to say that the current scandals have raised the voting public’s awareness of this previous scandal. But let’s be honest: it’s probably the upcoming movie, “5 Fast, 5 Furious.”
- Keystone XL. Pundits love to trash Republicans for “playing to the base,” but Congress may force the Administration’s hand on this wedge issue for Democrats’ extreme environmentalist supporters.
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.
Joel Sherman of the New York Post (America’s Newspaper of Record) published an exclusive (and extensive) interview with Alex Rodriguez’s doctors yesterday. On a day where an empty Hall of Fame induction press conference underscored the sport’s reliance on media perceptions, Sherman’s article is a great PR move from a player that could use it. If you can spell ESPN, you know that Rodriguez was MIA in the playoffs coming off two injury-riddled seasons, and what effect that had on his relationship with the forgiving and always-adoring New York sports fans.
This Sherman exclusive – which shares intricate details of the nature of his current injury – is a great public relations move. If you were using baseball metaphors, you’d call it a solid 2-run double.
Given the level of detail the medical staff shares about the status, it’s clear that Rodriguez had to give his blessing for the revelations, and that was smart. Without a single clichéd, Bull Durham-esque quote from the third baseman on being “more disappointed than anyone” or “not getting it done” during his horrendous postseason, two doctors went back and forth practically amazed that he could even walk during September and October. They also debunk the whispers that past steroid use caused Rodriguez’s injury. Best of all, Rodriguez and the Yankees stay out of the story. The medical information alone speaks for itself and doesn’t need framing. Heck, it makes you wonder if Rodriguez will play another game again at all.
And there’s why this is a great story. Demanding fans and the 24-hour sports news machine feed each other, and the meal is often re-digested. In this case, we all know the story: ARod, the richest player in baseball history, doesn’t live up to expectations and the fans hate him for it. More coverage begets more boos raining down from the upper deck, and boos in turn beget more negative coverage. Sherman’s story probably won’t stop that, but it does frame the last three years of Rodriguez’s career in a badly needed new – and much more flattering – light.
The National Rifle Association was already in a tough position when Wayne LaPierre took to the podium this morning. A full week after the violence in Connecticut, the nation’s biggest advocate of gun rights broke its self-imposed silence to offer their side of the recent debate.
LaPierre’s calls for increased school security and have been widely panned. That’s no surprise: the press conference really was a no-win situation, which they must have known when they decided it would be held on the Friday before Christmas weekend. There is nothing LaPierre could have said that would have drawn a positive response; this is an “against-the-spread” PR situation where the biggest victory is in making the smallest waves.
Yet there were three points that stood out in the official NRA response that clouded even that goal:
1. Making it all about the NRA. LaPierre explained his organization’s week-long silence as deferential to the community in mourning, but said he was forced to speak up:
Because for all the noise and anger directed at us over the past week, no one — nobody — has addressed the most important, pressing and immediate question we face: How do we protect our children right now, starting today, in a way that we know works?
This has the makings of a pretty good thesis statement except, but it is off the mark on a couple points. First, the noise and anger was not directed exclusively at the NRA in the last week. Horrific events like those in Newtown stir the most visceral emotions; and in that maelstrom of sadness and pain thinking thoughts like “Ban all guns now!” is completely logical. I’m sure there were plenty of freedom-loving Americans who, in the hours after the news of the shooting broke, would have gladly surrendered their Second Amendment rights to prevent a repeat of those events. It would have been nice to acknowledge that – though there were plenty who took the opportunity to bash the NRA, those people whose allegiance to the Second Amendment was shaken a bit shouldn’t be lumped in with the Michael Moores of the world.
Second, people have been asking “How do we protect our children?” for the last week – nonstop.
Framing their statement this way makes the NRA look extremely narcissistic and a bit paranoid. Yes, they will be under intense scrutiny from their political enemies, but that’s not who the most important audience was this morning. The NRA needed to demonstrate understanding of the greater understanding of last week’s events to connect with the broader public.
2. Blaming the media. The NRA followed a call for more security in schools with an admonishment of the media for their framing of the debate:
Now, I can imagine the shocking headlines you’ll print tomorrow morning: “More guns,” you’ll claim, “are the NRA’s answer to everything!” Your implication will be that guns are evil and have no place in society, much less in our schools.
Perhaps this was an attempt at inoculation - framing the response before the inevitable response came. But chastising the media while standing in front of the media only encourages more negative coverage.
3. Talking about guns. Here’s the crux of the problem: the shooting in Connecticut wasn’t about guns, it was about a sick person who took children’s lives for reasons the general public does not know yet. The discussions about gun control are one aspect of the reaction to the shooting. Unfortunately, that’s the area of discussion where the NRA decided to dwell.
The NRA is charged with defending its members’ rights to own guns – so it makes sense that the gun control angle would be the policy arena that was of most concern. But by acknowledging only that angle, the NRA legitimized the idea that the reaction to Newtown should be exclusively about gun control. Even when LaPierre mentioned other factors – such as American culture’s promotion of violence through video games – it was framed as the shifting of blame away from gun ownership.
By presenting this morning’s press conference within the context of the gun control debate, the NRA missed an opportunity to reduce the gun control element by elevating and expanding the overall conversation about what to do in the aftermath of Sandy Hook. In many ways, the NRA allowed its opponents to shape this morning’s statement – which is a sure recipe to lose your point.
How It Could Have Gone Better
The reality is that the NRA had something important and possibly resonant to say. After expressing his sympathies (which he did), LaPierre could have stated that in a situation like this it is important to think clearly and rationally to find solutions which will keep our children safe – and not be distracted by policies which do nothing to protect our children but allow politicians to pat themselves on the back. We should not and cannot, LaPierre could have said, sacrifice progress for the sake of easy motion. (There would have been some context mentioning the NRA as a four-million-person membership organization, which LaPierre worked in well this morning.)
LaPierre could have continued: Over the coming weeks and months there will be necessary and important discussions about what caused the horror in Connecticut – discussions in which the NRA will lend whatever expertise we can. Those discussions will surely involve expanded mental health services, school security, and (naturally) the limitation of gun rights.
On that last item, LaPierre might have noted that the reaction was understandable in the wake of such events. Without accusing anyone of trying to score political points, he might have called attention to a high level of misinformation and misunderstanding floating around in the media and in social media discussions. Then he could have unveiled guncontrolfacts.com (the URL is available for not that much money) or some other new website dedicated to illuminating that discussion with truth – because, again, the ultimate goal is to find solutions that work. A question-and-answer session would have been highly contentious, but would have been better than ignoring questions.
And that would have been it, because the goal of today would have been to return to the public eye, express understanding and a willingness to talk, and then to let the other side overreact if they felt the need to.
There would have been no Asa Hutchinson discussing a task force to put armed guards in schools – that policy push could come down the road. There would be no lambasting of the media or aggressive posturing, and certainly no opinions about the effects of video games and movies. The reaction from the punditocracy would have still been hostile, but the NRA would be better positioned to mitigate the likely gun control proposals that will emerge from the Biden Commission.
There also would be no shrinking from the NRA’s core values – just a recognition that, sometimes, tone matters, and that an effective response doesn’t mean having all the answers.
Kevin Drum at Mother Jones has a great call to arms for anyone – left or right – who is dissatisfied with the debt deal:
Public opinion is everything. Ronald Reagan was successful because public opinion supported him: he wanted to cut taxes and raise defense spending and so did big chunks of the public. He was leading in a direction that they already wanted to go.
But no matter how many times we try to kid ourselves with one poll result or another, liberals just don’t have that advantage. The public is mostly in favor of raising taxes on the rich — though I suspect its support is pretty soft — but on the bigger issues they mostly aren’t on our side. They think deficits are bad, they don’t trust Keynesian economics, they don’t want a higher IRS bill (who does, after all?), and they believe the federal government is spending too much on stuff they don’t really understand. Conservatives have just flat out won this debate in recent decades, and until that changes we’re not going to be able to make much progress.
Drum has a sizable audience: plenty of conservatives are upset with the way the deal shook out and wouldn’t chalk it up as a wind, just as many liberals and leftists would probably share Drum’s dour assessment.
The problem for either side is indeed public opinion. There are certain policy positions you can and can’t “sell” to the public at large. The Mackinac Center, a Michigan-based free market think tank, calls it the Overton Policy Window: for every range of possible outcomes for public policy issues, there are a subset which the public is willing to accept at a given time (or, more accurately, what politicians feel the public is willing to accept).
Drum is really talking about the need to move the Overton window in order to win political battles. That’s a good way to keep activists motivated after a legislative battle that ends with so much dissatisfaction and compromise.
It’s also something good to keep in mind to those addressing Tea Party activists in the coming months. For example, I spoke to a conservative columnist the other day who bemoaned the fact that while there are plenty of inside-the-beltway organizations eager to use the grassroots muscle of the tea partiers to advance an agenda, there are few telling them that a compromise might be, politically, the best thing that gets passed. He was technically right about the need for real leaders to provide more a constructive focus for passionate advocates. That type of communications will always be doomed, though, unless it’s accompanied by a roadmap to better outcomes in the future. People don’t want their leaders to tell them what can’t be done; they want leaders ready to change the world – if not today, then tomorrow.
As both Republican and Democrat leaders look to keep their respective bases motivated, it will be important to keep this in mind when discussing the recent debt deal. Instead of portraying the compromise as a victory, each side must discuss the debt issue in terms of reframing the policy window.
The word on the street is that Rick Perry is going to save the Republican Party.
With a primary field that doesn’t seem to satisfy the electorate and/or the media covering the race, the GOP is primed for Perry to ride in on a white horse and seize the nomination. The Texan inherits his position from a long line of GOP saviors, joining the ranks of Haley Barbour, Mitch Daniels, and Fred Thompson. Barbour and Daniels opted out of the 2012 race. Despite plenty of anticipation for a consensus conservative to jump in and provide Republicans a choice who wasn’t John McCain in 2008, Thompson proved to be what was feared: an entirely unserious candidate.
Why would Rick Perry be any less disappointing?
Like Thompson, Perry could be underestimating the existing primary field – a field which has been doing plenty of behind-the-scenes work to build campaign organizations. Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and Newt Gingrich have been unofficially running their 2012 campaigns since 2008. Like Barbour and Daniels, he could simply be the empty suit of the week – a fresh face many party leaders hope will have enough appeal to unite various factions of the Republican party and win critical middle-of-the-road votes to make 2012 closer.
Perry’s deliberations suggest he understands just what he would be getting into if he throws his hat into the ring – and that, like fellow governors Daniels and Barbour, he would rather not declare his candidacy unless he’s prepared to do what it takes to go all the way. If that is the case, then Perry could be formidable in the primary, even with the ground he has to make up. Still, there are plenty of areas where Perry is behind, such as establishing field offices, raising money, and building other elements of a successful campaign.
The problem isn’t with Perry or his nascent campaign but with the “savior mentality.” It creates expectations which are very difficult to live up to – and with expectations so important during primaries, Perry and his campaign would be wise to keep that mentality in check.
The top two Republican women who have made the most news recently have been Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann – the latter for a recent rise in several Iowa polls, the former because… well, because Sarah Palin seems like she will be a political headline fixture for the next few months at least. But there have also been a few rumblings about South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley playing hardball in her state government – rumblings which are becoming more relevant as Haley becomes a short-lister for the 2012 Vice Presidential spot and a potential 2016 candidate.
The stories about Bachmann and Palin are familiar; both are treated like intellectual lightweights. Bachmann’s campaign was picking up some steam when she derailed her own momentum with an unfortunate accidental reference to a serial killer in her announcement speech (though, to be fair, she may just be a fan of creepy clown paintings). It’s familiar territory for Palin, who has been mocked for being vacuous since she failed to make fun of Katie Couric for thinking newspapers still matter.
A completely different story is unfolding about Haley. Republicans and Democrats are both painting her as a shrewd and deft politician wearing ambition on her sleeve, a sort of center-right Hillary Clinton with clear goals, an idea of how to get there, and the willingness to carry out an aggressive (or even ruthless) plan to do it. The derogatory term for a woman like those qualities rhymes with “witch,” and it looks like her opponents are ready to hang the scarlet B around Haley’s neck.
The Bachmann/Haley stories lead to a disheartening observation: women in politics tend to be portrayed as either airheaded or hardheaded, with very little middle ground. It isn’t a case of anti-conservative media bias, either. When George W. Bush tripped over his words, the mistakes were evidence of the former President’s folksy charm. Barack Obama’s admonitions to his political opponents to “get serious” by acquiescing to his demands receives praise for taking charge. Each has their detractors, but neither has received the same level of caricature as Palin or Clinton.
So if one has to choose, which is better? Palin and Bachmann are discovering the pitfall of being a populist woman. Their ability to boil down issues to sound bites has seemingly backfired; their less-than-favorable coverage playing on their supposed intellectual shortcomings has made them almost impossible to envision as winning national candidates.
Maybe, for the sake her political future, it’s not such a bad thing for Nikki Haley to channel her inner Meredith Brooks.