As Barack Obama prepares for his second term as President of the United States, it's worth remembering what he identified as the biggest "mistake of his first term." Six months ago, he told Charlie Rose it was his failure to communicate.
How is it possible that President Obama -- whose campaign oratory has quite literally made audiences swoon -- struggles when it comes to communicating his own policy agenda?
He applies the same communication strategy in office as he does on the campaign. He even employs the same people. There isn't a press or communications office in the Obama Administration -- from the White House, to the Justice Department to the TSA -- that hasn't been staffed with the same brilliant communicators who helped elect Barack Obama to the presidency not once, but twice.
Yet a majority of Americans still don't believe that the stimulus helped the economy (despite rather extraordinary evidence to the contrary). And not only can few people explain how Obamacare works, a significant percentage of Americans thinks the president supports "death panels."
Is convincing the American people that their president doesn't want to kill them really that much harder than electing the first African-American president?
Or is it possible that communicating policy is different than communicating on a campaign?
If President Obama is serious about wanting to improve his communication in his next term, he should give some thought to the latter. Because, while there has long been a tendency to put everyone who talks to reporters and writes press releases in the same box, there is a fundamental difference between communicating on a campaign and explaining a policy like health reform. In fact, what works for one tends to be the opposite of what works for the other.
Think about it. Imagine for just a moment, how you would feel if your doctor talked to you the way most candidates talk to voters.
Imagine your doctor tells you that you need surgery, but instead of explaining why, he delivers a handful of carefully crafted sound bites that seem intentionally short on detail. Imagine that instead of inviting you to get a second opinion to confirm his diagnosis, your doctor launches a preemptive attack on other doctors, warning that anyone who disagrees with him doesn't really care about your health. Imagine that when you ask questions, he avoids addressing your concerns and just pivots back to his talking points and attack lines.
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On a campaign it makes sense to avoid lengthy policy explanations and sidestep points of contention. But, on a campaign, the candidate is only asking his audience for their votes, which most people don't believe will make the ultimate difference.
However, when a president asks the American people to support his plan to reform the health care system, much like that surgeon, he is asking them to trust him with an issue that has life and death consequences for them. Punchy sound bites aren't going to win him that trust.
Rather, the public needs to know that the president knows what he's talking about, understands their concerns and isn't going to leave them worse off than they are today. This means explaining how policies work, answering every point of contention and even admitting what could be better. Can you imagine a campaign doing that?
On a campaign, it makes sense for a candidate to attack his opponent and frame every policy as a choice between two competing visions. But, when the president promotes a policy as just one side of a debate, he not only alienates half of his audience, he makes it clear that there is disagreement as to whether or not his policy will work. The key to winning support for a policy isn't raising doubts that the policy will work. The key is explaining that the policy will work regardless of who or which party came up with it.
Finally, on a campaign, press staff don't need to know much more than a few lines about their candidate's policies. But it's hard to communicate a policy effectively if you don't understand it. Moreover, it's hard for reporters to cover policy substantively if press officers can't field questions or talk substantively about policy. The president can improve his administration's communications by giving better policy speeches, but he'll do even better if his staff is equipped to back him up.
Of course, it's possible that the President wasn't serious when he said he failed as a communicator. It's possible that his admission was just another campaign sound bite. But if President Obama is serious about not letting the biggest mistake of his first term become the biggest mistake of his presidency, then he should consider the possibility that the communication strategy that got him into office doesn't work very well for him in office.
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