For Obama, a tough year to get the message out

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 10, 2010; A01

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.

He said that "you can draw a straight line substantively and rhetorically" through all of Obama's major speeches on health care, but he added that, because of the complexity of the issue, "there have been a number of fronts" in the message war that have required the administration's engagement. Still, public support for the overall initiative declined through the year.

On the economic debate, former White House communications director Anita Dunn said the administration has always seen health-care reform as a central part of its economic message. "Our lack of success at doing that . . . is one of the reasons that people feel there wasn't the focus" on the economy, she said. Another White House official asserted that on the economy, "We've got a better story to tell than we've told."

Meeting expectations

The campaign performance set high expectations for the Obama team. A Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly, said the Obama team rarely lost control of its campaign message but "hasn't won a single message battle" this year. Phil Singer, who battled the Obama team as part of Hillary Rodham Clinton's communications operation in the Democratic primaries, offered a counter view.

"They've done a pretty good job," he said. "The challenges they face are under-appreciated, given the success they had during the campaign."

Pfeiffer said the Obama team suffers from distorted impressions of the campaign's successes. Through much of 2007, he said, stories about Obama's campaign emphasized not the team's skill but "how we were getting our clock cleaned" by the Clinton campaign. In early September 2008, he added, critics were saying Obama's advisers were being outflanked by John McCain, Sarah Palin and the GOP message operation.

"What got us through those tough periods, both in the campaign and what I think is now, is that we were not particularly worried about the short-term impact of the quote-unquote message blips," Pfeiffer said.

Not everyone agrees this White House has maintained that long-term focus. Still, White House officials also question whether anyone else could have delivered a more effective message about the administration's economic policies, given the steps they decided were necessary to combat the deepest recession since the Depression.

"Believe me, no one sat around in December [2008] and said, 'I think it would be a great political strategy to start out with a $787 billion recovery package and then move on to a bill to support banks and the auto companies,' " Axelrod said. "That's not exactly a winning political strategy." Added Pfeiffer: "There is no salesman, living or dead, who could make that popular."

White House officials also contend that, in the end, the health-care measure will prove more popular in practice than it has been through the long legislative debate.

"There's a long history and cynicism about such efforts because there are so many carcasses in the road," Pfeiffer said. He added that the only way to overcome skepticism that government can oversee major changes to the health-care system "is to pass it and prove you can do it."

Controlling the message

A campaign team has near-total control over its message. A White House does not. "When it's either legislative strategy or regulatory strategy, you have to cede a considerable amount of control to people who don't share your interest, even if they're in your party," said Dan Bartlett, communications director in Bush's White House.

White House officials also cannot ignore events, as campaigns often do. "You can pick and choose what you want to discuss and what you don't want to discuss," Axelrod said. "When you're president of the United States, you have a responsibility to deal with the problems as they come."

Pfeiffer added: "In the White House, you have the myriad of challenges on any given day and are generally being forced to communicate a number of complex subjects at the same time."

Obama's campaign skillfully exploited technology and new media to communicate its message and organize in states. In the White House, officials have discovered those techniques' limits, though they still experiment with them.

The communications office has used the White House blog to rebut Republican opponents or push stories they see as inaccurate. Still, in the age of Twitter, opponents often have an easier time picking apart pieces of a health-care bill than the White House has in explaining a bill's complexities.

Critics of the administration say Obama has taken on so much that his message lacks a singular focus. "They've lost the narrative," Bartlett said. McKinnon added: "The umbrella under which everything sits seemed pretty clearly defined in the campaign and not so clearly defined now."

White House officials acknowledge that internal assessments have led them to conclude they have been too reactive and too tactical. This year will offer a chance to correct that problem by developing more strategic communications plans, particularly on the economy and to sell health-care reforms, assuming they are enacted into law.

But Axelrod said the best antidote to all the criticisms aimed at the White House and to declining poll numbers will be a genuine turnaround in the economy.

"People are unsettled and unhappy about that, and they should be," he said. "The politics will follow the progress, and as we climb out of this terrible hole that we've been in, the politics will respond."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company