Obama’s Communications Conundrum
The challenge of being an incumbent President is that you may have a great record, but if your messaging is poor, you could still lose. If you have a record that is mediocre, then great messaging may not save you.
Barack Obama faces serious challenges in his re-election campaign. His record is mixed at best, and some would say a complete failure. It certainly is not the rousing success voters expected, as hope and change have not come to pass. As such, President Obama is trapped in a communications box. The only messages he can put out will consist of blame, division, distraction, and negativity. Even worse, his communications staff is, in my opinion, a disaster. Jay Carney should’ve been fired ages ago.
The key to understanding the messaging you’ll be hearing is that facts don’t matter -- people’s perception is what matters. In my opinion, the average American’s perception of President Obama is not a good one.
Who is the average American? They are centrists and independents that spend their days working, caring for their families, eating meals, enjoying some entertainment, and picking up snippets of news here and there. They go to their respective places of worship, gather with their community, watch sports, have a beer, enjoy a barbecue, and engage in non-political conversation. They try to save a little money each year for retirement, pay their bills on time, and maybe have enough to take the family for a vacation. Of course, many millions are also unemployed and struggling.
Overall, they are good people with strong values. They don't care for extremism. They have an innate sense of right and wrong. Most of all, they respect fair play. While the President is limited in his strategy, Gov. Romney will be able to stay relatively positive, while also calling attention to the President’s negative tone.
Here are some topics to pay attention to as we move into the election season.
The primary issue for voters this year is the economy. They will look at several pieces of data, but primarily will perform a gut check about their own employment situation and those of their friends. They will see this ad, and the answer will be “no” -- their lives are not any better and in many cases, they are worse. Gov. Romney need simply pull out these five charts to deliver a message that the Obama Administration has failed:
The number of people in the workforce has declined at an unprecedented rate because they’ve given up looking for work.
More than 4.5 million people remain unemployed since President Obama took office.
The “stimulus” produced a net loss of more than four million jobs. It was a waste of $1.2 trillion (including interest).
The stimulus didn’t result in spending on “shovel-ready jobs” – such as construction. Overall construction spending was flat to down after the stimulus.
President Obama’s spending is out of control, increasing the national debt by 50% ($5 trillion), and creating trillion-dollar deficits.
Those five charts speak volumes. Gov. Romney can then follow it with positive messaging, that will keep sounding like this.
How does President Obama respond?
He can’t respond directly. The perception of the American economy does not allow him to run on a successful record. Saying, “things could have been worse” won’t cut it. He can only provide distractions, like the recent contraception nonsense, or the “Buffett Rule”. He can only try to paint Gov. Romney as “part of the 1%”, which is a negative message. In short, he can only sow division. Like this. We’ll see a lot more of it.
Who do you think average Americans are going to respond to more?
In the area of foreign policy, the two photos in this article are all Gov. Romney needs to make his case, by calling President Obama the “Apologist-in-Chief”.
Average Americans who see those photos think their President is weak, not strong. Americans identify with strength, not weakness. America likes winners, not losers. Americans do not like to see their President bow or apologize. It doesn’t matter what the truth is, even if a fair analysis exists about the issue.
Gov. Romney can point to the open-mic capture of President Obama telling Russian President Medvedev that he’d “have more flexibility” after his election. Again, the truth isn’t what matters. This makes President Obama look arrogant (in expecting to win) and weak, in that he’s submitting to Russian goals, and not American ones.
There was the gaffe in which the President belittled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The perception is that President Obama has disdain for Israel. Gov. Romney need only post highlights from Mr. Netanyahu’s fantastic speech to Congress, and point out that this is not how our President should be reacting to the only democracy in the Middle East. This is a must-see speech, because it also shows what a strong leader looks like in contrast to a weak one – and that’s another message Gov. Romney will send.
Again, Pres. Obama finds himself boxed in. How does he run a campaign on having a “strong foreign policy” when those two photos exist, and when he’s been caught on tape saying insulting things to our ally, and appears to be appeasing the Russians?
It’s a difficult position to be in.
Some may say that the President can point to having killed Osama bin Laden as a great achievement. There’s no question that Americans are happy about it. The problem is the President made another communications error. His comments come off to average people as self-aggrandizing. The classy thing to do is give all the credit to the military, and rather than tell us how he gave the order to kill bin Laden, to instead make oblique references to the world now being safer. Yet because of the above examples, he cannot rely on other aspects of foreign policy success, he must spike the football.
Average Americans do not like self-aggrandizement. They prefer modesty.
If you don’t believe that argument, ask yourself why the message out of the White House is again a negative one – that Gov. Romney wouldn’t have given the order to take out bin Laden. It’s a weak argument to suggest that a Governor and private-equity manager – both of whom are required to make huge decisions on a daily basis – would not have given the order.
King Barack and Queen Michelle
I’m all for a President taking vacations. However, the White House has an optics problem on its hands. While millions of average Americans struggle economically, they are simultaneously treated to photos of the First Lady’s seventeen vacations – all of which are paid for by taxpayers. That’s an average of a vacation every ten weeks.
The average American sees this as expensive, unnecessary, and insensitive.
Then there’s the 95 rounds of golf.
Never mind if it’s right or wrong. It’s the perception that counts. The problem is that there is really no language to defend his position. All President Obama can do is compare these vacations to other Presidents – and vilify them. Again, that’s negativity that will not play well.
The Occupy movement already had turned violent last fall. Now they are being open about it. President Obama has endorsed this movement. Americans do not like violence. Nor will they sympathize with what they perceive as a group of violent complainers – who are complaining even though it is their guy in the White House. This is guilt by association, and it will backbite the President.
The Enemies List!
The panic has been coming out of the White House for months. Perhaps you’ve visited the President’s official campaign website, AttackWatch! To me, this is not only laughable but a stunning display of communications foolishness. This website is devoted to reporting “smears”. The mere idea of it gives average Americans a feeling that Big Brother is watching, that people should report their neighbors for slurs against the President! Again, it doesn’t matter what the truth is – it’s how it’s perceived. And average Americans perceive it as juvenile.
Finally, average Americans don’t like the Alinsky tactic of "publicly shaming” eight individuals who dared contribute to Gov. Romney. It seems petty and arrogant.
Team Obama’s messaging will be negative and divisive and focused on vilifying his opponent. Listen carefully to the messaging and the language the President’s campaign team uses over the next few months. It will not speak to their “accomplishments”.
Team Romney’s messaging will likely be simple, direct, and straightforward. It will be positive, it will recall Ronald Reagan’s campaign messaging, and it will speak to the average American. As long as he and his allies do not permit themselves to be distracted, they may very well cruise to an easy victory.