Obama Mangles Message on Economy

Ad Age's Marketer of the Year Lacks Communications Prowess He Had as Candidate

By Published on . 18

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Back in June, the Obama administration declared that a "summer of recovery" was at hand, as some construction projects funded by the stimulus bill passed 19 months before finally got underway. He ended the summer on a darker note, in a prime-time address from the Oval Office that used some grim rhetoric to describe the state of the economy.

Having -- in properly sober fashion and sans flight suit -- declared the war in Iraq over, Barack Obama indicated a shift to the economy as his central issue, referencing a "time of great uncertainty," a "long and painful recession," even suggesting "a future of lasting peace and long-term prosperity may seem beyond our reach." As for how to regain that prosperity, he pointed out we need to end dependence on oil, increase exports, jumpstart innovation, and improve the education system.

President Obama
President Obama Credit: Saul Loeb

The American public, faced with negative indicators on the unemployment and housing fronts, not to mention the stock indices, needed a confidence-inspiring blueprint. Instead, from President Obama, it got a grim portrait of the economic landscape followed by a rote recitation of non-specific and familiar-sounding solutions that could have been delivered at any time in his presidency.

It's a fact that Obama inherited the worst economy since the Great Depression and there's no quick or easy way out. But it's stunning how he's struggled to articulate a clear path toward recovery and a sustainable future, especially when one considers the communications prowess he showed as a candidate.

The administration's message on the most important issue to voters has gotten lost, smothered by lengthy, all-encompassing and rancorous policy pushes, such as health-care reform and the energy debate, that suck the oxygen out of the nation's politics. And on top of that strategic choice to work an agenda in the administration's first year instead of focus, as President Bill Clinton did in his first year, on job creation, the Obama administration has found it difficult to explain what it's done or where it's going.

"When you're the president, people want to hear about the road ahead and where we're going from here," said Don Baer, Burson-Marsteller Worldwide vice chairman and former White House communications director under President Clinton. "They want to know: This is how we build a dynamic America that's built on growth and opportunity and jobs."

Mr. Baer said the key to reassuring Americans about an economic future is being specific about initiatives -- without being so specific that the administration opens itself to attack.

Obama committed that error of being overspecific when he promised the stimulus bill would keep the unemployment level around 8%. Today it's at 9.5%.

"That was a strategic misstep," said Jay Cost, who until last week wrote the Horse Race blog for Real Clear Politics and is now headed to the Weekly Standard. On one hand, the administration has stumbled when it comes to highlighting the tangible accomplishments that have come out of stimulus spending. Can you identify a specific job or program that it's created? A lead from a June New York Times story said it all: "The shovels are finally ready. But is anyone paying attention?"

On the other hand, Obama has a hard time articulating a vision for recovery. There's a pessimistic streak running through American economic thinking right now, with questions being asked not only about a double-dip recession, but also a Japan-style lost decade. Groundless optimism is going to be tough to demand of the American people.

Jere Sullivan, vice chairman-global public affairs at PR firm Edelman, called the communications strategy so far a "piecemeal" approach and pointed to two initiatives announced in the past month or so that don't add up to much. An initiative designed to buoy the country's manufacturing base, occasionally dubbed "Making It in America," was followed by the announcement of a small-business push that hinges on a lending bill now stuck in a congressional gridlock.

"Looking at this as a voter, the parts don't add up to anything," said Mr. Sullivan. "He's not doing his equivalent of the Contract With America -- giving us a six-point plan and saying this is what it's going to take, and this is what it's going to deliver us."

There's little doubt left this will take a toll on the Democrats in the midterm elections, with most observers assuming the party will lose the House of Representatives.

In thinking about how Obama, whose approval rating has slipped to a low of 43%, might recover from this, Clinton's first term comes up often.

In 1994, Democrats lost Congress to a Republican Party that was surging on the Contract With America platform built on an opposition to government spending. Mr. Cost argues those midterm losses kept Clinton on his heels until he dug in on a Republican attempt to reduce the speed at which Medicare costs were rising. In 1996, having entrenched himself as the centrist he really was, Clinton won re-election handily.

"Clinton was able to do that because he was able to articulate a new vision of his presidency," said Mr. Cost. "It meant something different in 1995 than it did in 1993. The White House is fortunate in that the writing is on the wall. It's obvious the Republicans are going to do well, and it gives the president time to mull over how we're going to position ourselves in 2011 and 2012."

And who, a few years ago, would have thought Obama would be lacking when it comes to expressing vision?

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