White House revamps communications strategy

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 15, 2010

White House officials are retooling the administration's communications strategy to produce faster responses to political adversaries, a more disciplined focus on President Obama's call for "change" in Washington and an increasingly selective use of the president's time.

The messaging adjustments are the result of an end-of-the-year analysis in which White House advisers said the president's communications team had not taken the initiative often enough and had allowed drawn-out debates in Congress, and relentless criticism by Republicans, to drown out his message.

"It was clear that too often we didn't have the ball -- Congress had the ball in terms of driving the message," communications director Dan Pfeiffer said. "In 2010, the president will constantly be doing high-profile things to be the person driving the narrative."

Senior White House aides described the changes as an aggressive response, aimed at producing fresh momentum for the president's faltering agenda and regaining the advantage ahead of the congressional midterm elections in November.

Vice President Biden's appearances on two Sunday morning talk shows were part of the new response -- in this case, to rebut former vice president Richard B. Cheney's accusations that the administration is weak on terrorism. Biden, who taped one of the shows in advance, said his predecessor was attempting to "rewrite history."

Obama's surprise news conference last week -- his first in nearly seven months -- is another example. After a bipartisan meeting with congressional leaders, Obama faced the media to declare his willingness to work with Republicans. But he warned: "I also won't hesitate to condemn what I consider to be obstinacy that's rooted not in substantive disagreements but in political expedience."

The plan to deploy Obama after the meeting with lawmakers was a departure from the practice of issuing one- or two-sentence "readouts" after presidential meetings. Aides said they are unwilling to let others frame the president's private discussions.

The proposal to televise a Feb. 25 health-care summit with Republicans grew out of a conclusion by top White House advisers that Obama had bested House GOP leaders during a 90-minute televised discussion in Baltimore last month. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll, 45 percent of those surveyed said Obama was doing "the right amount" to compromise with Republicans. Thirty percent said the same of the GOP.

"One thing for sure that people want is for us to have honest, open debate," said senior adviser David Axelrod. "The question is whether we can overcome the obstacles of hyperpartisanship and the excessive influence of special interests here. We are going to communicate that."

Stephen J. Farnsworth, an assistant professor of communication at George Mason University and author of "Spinner in Chief: How Presidents Sell Their Policies and Themselves," said: "A diffident Obama PR strategy in the first year gave the Republicans an opening they have exploited." Farnsworth added of White House officials, "They simply have to play offense to try to win back the public support that they enjoyed during the campaign."

Obama's aides say their communications efforts last year helped produce some of his successes, including passage of the Recovery Act. But they acknowledged, as Axelrod said, that "it's easy to lose the forest for the trees -- there was some of that, yes." Obama has publicly expressed frustration recently that his broader message, especially on health-care reform and the economy, has not been received.

Press secretary Robert Gibbs said the White House team struggled in 2009 to adapt to a political environment that demanded daily communication battles. "We have to adjust in many ways to the fact that in the campaign we always took the long view," he said. "This is an environment that calls for sharper communication."

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