Whatever the Merits of Obama's Reform, the Marketing Is a Mess

Our Marketer of the Year Forgot the Lessons of His Campaign

By Published on .

If the political world has a cliché as tired as marketing's "Nothing kills a bad product like good advertising," it's probably the somewhat related "Governing is not the same as campaigning."

Barack Obama and his team of political operatives -- named Marketer of the Year in 2008 -- have learned that even tired clichés have large elements of truth.

Team Obama was hailed last year as a fast-thinking, highly adaptable machine quick to marry the best of old campaigning methods with the newest. Team Obama became Brand Obama, a sort of pop-culture phenomenon that consumers voted into the White House. Once elected and faced with the reality of the office, Brand Obama held up pretty well in the face of enormous challenges.

And then came health care. Even in the best of years, tackling health-care reform in the U.S. demands something approaching perfection when it comes to messaging and branding.

Team Obama didn't come close. It never clearly defined the message; it let surrogates control the debate; it clumsily used the wrong tactics at the wrong times. Worst of all, it didn't respect the consumer.

Quick: What is Obamacare? "A derogatory term coined by the right" may be the correct answer, but it misses the bigger point. Even at this stage, there is no one cohesive bill. Echoing those campaign promises of "Hope" and "Change," Team Obama seemed to believe it could simply sell "Reform."

"Reform" is a pretty vague promise -- a tagline without a product. Yet Team Obama wanted reform rushed through in the dead of summer. From a practical political point of view, there's a rational reason for this. Because it's such a complex and charged issue, the longer the debate, the easier it is to get mired in the details, the easier it is for the opposition to get to work.

That opposition had three things going for it: 1) It had gotten plenty of practice while debating the stimulus bills and the energy bill passed by the House. 2) It was a challenger brand with a simple message: "STOP!" 3) Mr. Obama had put health-care reform into the hands of congressional Democrats, who were much less popular and much easier to vilify.

Meanwhile, Team Obama seemed to forget it was no longer a scrappy political operation reaching out to supporters but rather the White House dealing with citizens. It asked those citizens to forward e-mails carrying erroneous information about health care to the White House. The hysteria about "death panels" needed to be countered, but imagine the outcry if George W. Bush's White House had asked Americans to start forwarding e-mails to the White House. And what did Team Obama do after tripping over a privacy issue? It spammed thousands of people with pro-reform messages, admitting after the fact that perhaps people may have been signed up by third parties. Both e-mail programs have since been pulled.

When some of its very best weapons -- community organizing and grass-roots efforts -- were turned against it, Team Obama did two things. Through surrogates, it vocally derided such efforts with semantic debates over grass roots and astroturfing and, perhaps the worst sin in politics, began hurling names at citizens opposed to its stance. It's one thing for Coke to attack Pepsi; it's another for Coke to call Pepsi drinkers unpatriotic terrorists.

Of course, another common mistake in politics is for pundits to count out a wily and successful politician. One could almost bring oneself to believe that Mr. Obama and his team actually know what they're doing. Maybe the plan is to let a Democratic Congress float bills guaranteed to rile up everyone right of center -- and then walk it back to something just left of center.

But attributing that sort of far-sighted intelligence to any political group isn't much better than ranting like a lunatic about birth certificates.

The simplest answer may be the easiest: Team Obama was using tactics from the last battle. And that rarely works in marketing or politics.

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