Friday, November 26, 2010

Obama and the Democrats Still Don't Get It - Fix the PR & Messaging, and Pick the Right Battles

The Midterm (S)elections ended pretty much as expected. Confused Americans tired of gridlock in Washington DC, voted for more gridlock. This is frustrating because I know many of those white Republican voters are poor working class and middle class people. Many have been greatly impacted by the economy. I don't understand how they believe Republicans will make their lives any better. Afterall, a Republican White House was at the helm when the economy crashed. Republicans will aim to cut projects and services that many of their own constituents depend on... food stamps, medicare, unemployment insurance, S-chip, infrastructure investments, money for Police and name it. The next two years will be very constraining for President Obama, due to a Republican House of Representatives that will block his remaining agenda.

I have been annoyed and dejected about politics and the direction of the Country (still going in the wrong direction) over the past several weeks and have not been motivated to write anything. Voters and the Country have been disappointing more often than not over the past several years. Things started to go downhill politically in the late 1990's when Republicans and Ken Starr turned the Clinton affair into a circus. Then the U.S. made a number of foreign policy mistakes... under Clinton, which didn't help the U.S. at all...and caused more harm. That was followed up by the 2000 elections. A year later... we had the 9/11 catastrophe. The U.S. hasn't been the same since. Every major negative event that happened after 2000 and 2001 can be traced back to the major events of those two years (the Election of Bush/Cheney, and 9/11)....every major negative event. The nation is still licking its wounds from 2000 and 2001.

What annoyed me most about the Democrats, Post-election, was the fact that there didn't seem to be any effort whatsoever to understand what helped lead to the sharp losses. There was no recognition at all of Progressive/Democratic Party strategy. It was back to business as usual. The first major sign that the Democrats didn't get it was the fact that they chose Nancy Pelosi to continue as the Party's leader in the House of Representatives. This would have been a good opportunity to start fresh with a new leader. Pelosi, in my view, was never very effective as Speaker. Not only does the choice of Pelosi provide more motivation for Republicans over the next two years, but it sends the signal that Democrats are, to some extent, tone deaf. Democrats never seemed to have their finger on the collective pulse of the American public. Despite the need to focus on jobs and the economy.... Democrats chose Healthcare. That in of itself was not the fatal blow. It was the way that they went about selling Healthcare Reform that sunk them. Democrats never seemed to understand the importance of messaging and PR... how to grab and maintain the initiative in the information war. As a result, they lost the information war early on and were never able to regain control of the debate. Democrats also failed to grasp the fact that the U.S. is a centrist to center-right nation, and that governing may sometimes require a centrist approach. However, this is also a nation, as centrist as it may be, where people like populist ideas...some of which are Progressive ideas. In other words...large complicated bills that few people understand are often frowned upon due to costs and the image of too much government. But when you separate Progressive ideas into smaller slices, Americans often like them.... the populist side of the Country kicks in. Democrats failed to exploit the way that Americans understand and perceive policy. It's as if Democrats didn't bother gauging public sentiment at all to determine the best strategy for proceeding.

They were able to pass a bill....many observers, including myself, predicted that. But the cost was probably too high...politically and otherwise. A better strategy might have been passing the bill in pieces which would have been less confusing. They should have focused on passing (and branding) the popular aspects of reform....making it difficult for Republicans to confuse and misinform voters.

President Obama himself doesn't seem to get it. Not only doesn't he seem to understand the larger issues that I mentioned regarding Democrats... he also doesn't seem to understand how his position and approach as President will have to change. During his post-election press conference, the President once again extended an olive branch to Republicans and talked bipartisanship. This was after (Speaker elect) John Boehner and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, made it clear that they had no intentions on pursuing a bipartisan approach.

"This is not a time for compromise, and I can tell you that we will not compromise on our principles," Boehner said during an appearance on conservative Sean Hannity's radio show.

McConnell made similar statements, basically saying that his priority would be to make sure that Obama is defeated in 2012. The only way to do that is to sabotage the remaining two years of Obama's Presidency....which is exactly what they plan to do. It's the same approach that they used during his first two years in office.

The Republican plan is basically to continue the approach of obstruction...and run out the clock on Obama's time in office. They don't want to allow Obama to claim credit for anything positive. They are even reluctant to allow Obama to sign the New START Treaty. The START Treaty is part of a family of Treaties going back to the SALT Treaties under Ford and Carter. They have been the cornerstone of arms control & arms reduction between the U.S. and Russia for four decades. Senate approval of these treaties is usually a formality. All out delays, opposition, sabotage & interference is extremely unusual... not just over the past four decades, but throughout the history of the Republic.

Is Obama tone deaf? He doesn't seem to understand that Republicans have declared war on his Presidency. He also doesn't seem to understand that Democrats/Progressives are in the midst of an information war...and they are losing. I can understand his desire to remain cordial. That's the professional thing to do... but behind the scenes he has to have a two track strategy if he wants to avoid being a one term President.

There is a way that Obama could minimize Republican obstructionism and even put pressure on Republicans. I'm not very optimistic, because the Obama strategy team and the strategy approach of the Party as a whole has been so ineffective over the past two years. But he could position himself to be competitive in 2012, if (along with the Democratic Party) he takes the following approach:

1. Vastly improve the messaging and PR. This has been dismal lately. Work to establish a media infrastructure and communications network for Progressives that could rival the Republican media apparatus (which dominates TV news, and Talk Radio, and has a growing presence on the net). The Democrats and the Obama Administration also must understand the importance of branding. Also, re-establish the PR response effort that was in place during the 2007-08 campaign. Dismantling this after the election was a huge mistake. Put the PR war room back in place.
Without making strides in the information war... Obama's re-election could be in doubt. You can have the best ideas in the world.... but if you have no way to get your message out... no way to compete on the airwaves, no way to combat and prevent distortions... then it doesn't really matter.

2. Keep making efforts to work with Republicans, but behind the scenes, rely on a two track approach. The real approach should be to cut out Congress altogether when necessary.... earlier than usual. Instead, talk directly to the American people about proposals. Talk to Americans during prime time (yes... interrupt them) once or twice a month to provide regular status updates. Tell them what legislation you want/and that the nation needs and point out when Republicans are blocking those efforts. Focus on popular pieces of legislation at least initially. This could work to basically turn the tables on Republicans and force them to govern ...and make tough decisions. Call their bluff on debt issues... make them explain the painful cuts to programs that people depend on. Make them explain why tax cuts for the rich were more important than a poor family's unemployment benefits or food stamps... down to earth, real world programs that people depend on to keep food on the table. Programs that people are depending on more than ever now...ironically due to an economic collapse that took place under a Republican President. Some of those people that will be impacted by Republican cuts are going to be white, working class Republicans. If Republicans block everything (even popular, sensible legislation)...the hope is that American voters will notice and at the very least give Obama another four years. Not that i'm a huge Obama fan (never was)....although I am proud. The reality is... there is no alternative. The idea of a President Romney, Gingrich, Barbour or the ultimate nightmare Sarah Palin, scares the daylights out of me.

3. Obama has to bring in a more effective, more creative strategy team. It's almost a full month after the elections and I see no improvement on the media/PR front.

4. Democrats have to choose their battles more carefully...concentrating on issues that the American people are most concerned with, keeping their fingers on the collective pulse of the nation, and choosing battles that would give them a chance to be effective and to win. Once a battle is chosen... stand up and fight for the Democratic/Progressive position....but be open to compromise when practical and sensible, and when the other side is acting in good faith (which is almost never). But the hope choosing populist positions, the public will be on the side of Progressives, making Republican obstructionism much more difficult. This is why it is important to explain proposals in terms of how they would make life better for average Americans.... how a proposal would create jobs...etc. Speak in terms that middle America can understand.

5. Democrats/Progressives should invest heavily in a public/voter education initiative, both through public school curriculum's and through not-for-profit groups. Such a campaign should be a sustained long term effort, lasting years.

Why Did Americans Jump on the Republican Bandwagon?

1. Republicans are much more effective when it comes to PR and branding. Republican marketing/PR is so strong that they could sell just about anything. It's all in the packaging. Republican strategists understand how to use information or misinformation to change, and control public opinion. Yes, it's manipulative....but it works for them. They were basically able to convince enough voters that the economic pain that they were feeling was somehow the fault of President Obama (not because of the jackasses who came before, who were asleep at the wheel for 8 years). Yes, the Party controlling the White House typically loses seats in Congress after Midterm elections, however, the losses this year were made worse by deliberate efforts by the GOP (and its allies) to confuse and misinform voters.

2. Well I will let Pollster founder Charles Franklin say it. Sadly he's right. He basically says what I have been pointing out for years. I don't bring this up as a way to make fun of voters. Quite the contrary. I don't believe it's necessarily their fault. It's easy to fall victim to misinformation, especially in the digital/internet age. It's that much easier to fall victim when you may not have all the tools to navigate through the nonsense and lies, and to determine what good information is vs. bad information. Public School systems and colleges don't put enough emphasis on basic civics, government, political science, history, geography, and cultural instruction. This is why voter education has to be a fundamental part of the Democratic Party's strategy.

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