White House revamps communications strategy

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 15, 2010; A06

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."

Gibbs and others at the White House described four major changes that have been put in place since Democrats lost their supermajority in the Senate with the election of Republican Scott P. Brown in Massachusetts and the health-care effort stalled in Congress.

First, they said, is a return to the disciplined messaging that was a hallmark of the 2008 campaign, in which unhelpful themes were filtered out in favor of topics that advanced the candidate's goals. In the White House, they said, that will mean a tighter focus on Obama's commitment to the economy and jobs for average Americans. "The threshold for things he will go out and talk about is higher," one senior aide said.

Second, White House advisers promise a quicker, more aggressive response to GOP attacks on the president and his policies. They noted that Obama and his top White House advisers have pushed back hard against Republican accusations that the FBI mishandled the interrogation of the man accused of trying to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day -- and as Biden did on Sunday.

Gibbs argued the administration's case in a Feb. 3 e-mail to reporters with the subject line "Just to be clear . . ." The e-mail was the first of what he says will be a regular outreach to the media. Over the weekend, Gibbs began using the online service Twitter.

Pfeiffer, who took over as communications director in December, said he has directed more resources toward rapid response, especially online. When Bloomberg News ran a headline suggesting that Obama was indifferent to the issue of bonuses for bankers, aides immediately posted a rebuttal on the White House blog. They e-mailed online news sites to change the headline and asked progressive bloggers to convey their interpretation of the president's remarks.

A third change is a return to the backdrops for Obama that aides considered so effective during the presidential bid. The image of Obama standing in the Diplomatic Room surrounded by men in dark suits will be replaced, as often as possible, by scenes of a more relaxed president in crowds. The goal is to have Obama travel outside of Washington -- what they call "the bubble" -- at least once a week, advisers said.

Finally, aides said it was recognized inside the West Wing that Obama has strayed from his most successful message of the campaign: that he would be a change agent in Washington.

"Belatedly," Farnsworth said, "the Obama administration is starting to recognize their advantage."

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