For Obama, a tough year to get the message out

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 10, 2010

In winning the White House, Barack Obama's team earned a reputation for skill and discipline in dominating the communications wars with opponents. In office, virtually the same team has struggled, spending much of the past year defending the administration's actions on the two biggest domestic issues -- the economy and health care.

The White House has sought to sell health-care reform as a way to make coverage affordable and accessible to middle-class families. But it was also presented at various times as a cost-containment measure, a restraint on greedy insurance companies, a moral imperative to cover the uninsured and, to Democratic lawmakers, as a "can't fail" enterprise. The president and his aides sent mixed signals on the "public option" as well, voicing support for a government-run plan while signaling their willingness to see it die to get a bill passed.

On the economy, administration officials put themselves at a disadvantage with faulty projections of the jobless rate and an overly rosy prediction of how many jobs the stimulus package would create or save. Once they had put in place policies to deal with the worst of the crises Obama inherited, they moved on to health care and later to Afghanistan. The result was a perceived loss of focus in addressing public unrest about unemployment that has prompted a shift back to the economy recently.

It is an axiom of political communication that the president wields the world's biggest megaphone and is therefore capable of setting an agenda and dominating a debate. Obama has used his rhetorical skills repeatedly to good effect, but officials acknowledge that there are limits.

"There is real power there," White House senior adviser David Axelrod said of the president's platform. "But it's not a magic wand. The bully pulpit does not put people to work."

Obama's advisers have learned what previous White House teams came to realize when they arrived in Washington, which is the vast difference between campaigning and governing. Asked what happened to the Obama team, Mark McKinnon, who was a media adviser to President George W. Bush, said, "They're human. They've walked into the propellers of the federal government."

Axelrod said the challenge of managing and controlling messages in a campaign and in the White House is "the difference between tick-tack-toe and three-dimensional tick-tack-toe. It's vastly more complicated."

One factor is the times in which Obama is governing. Double-digit unemployment colors public opinion, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the continuing threat of terrorism frame the challenging foreign policy environment. But other factors also affect the White House's message management.

Governing lacks the singular focus of a campaign. A White House must manage multiple issues on any given day, can rarely pick and choose its battles, and must speak to many audiences at the same time. Successful campaigns maintain control of their message most of the time. Even the best of White House operations struggle to maintain a semblance of control in the face of competition from allies on Capitol Hill, the bureaucracy and the opposition party.

Those who see problems in the Obama White House message operation say they are not the result of an effective opposition.

"I don't think the Republicans have mounted this great, disciplined message operation," said Matthew Dowd, who was a top campaign adviser to Bush in 2000 and 2004 and is now an independent analyst for ABC News. "It's a lack of prioritizing by the administration and being disciplined by what those [priorities] are."

Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, challenged critics who contend that the health-care message has been inconsistent.

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