President Barack Obama appeared on the Zach Galifianakis internet comedy show, Between Two Ferns, on March 11, ostensibly to promote his signature health care reform legislation to millions of mostly young, healthy Americans. These men and women have to enroll if his reforms are to work and for the insurance scheme to be actuarially sound.
As a student of the presidency, I remain fascinated by how presidents use their time and how they choose to communicate: what they say, when they say it, to whom and in what context. The president's appearance on Between Two Ferns was a case study in how not to communicate.
The president had a compelling message to deliver: If mostly older people sign up for Obamacare, his bill is doomed, as premiums from those young assureds (who use medical services less intensively) are needed to subsidize the present expenses of older, sicker Americans. The current enrollment period ends on March 31, 2014, and enrollment figures are still well below the Obama Administration's earlier estimate of seven million enrollees before April 1.
But what genius in the Obama White House let the president appear on an internet comedy program in the midst of the most serious crisis between Russia and the West since the collapse of the former Soviet Union? With mounting tensions in the Ukraine, an upcoming secession vote, and the Ukrainian prime minister scheduled to visit Washington the next day, why would Obama show up on a comedy program?
The exchange was, at best, strained and not terribly funny. There was discussion of a possible White House turkey pardon for next year's Thanksgiving Day and the role of "Ambassador" Dennis Rodman. Barack Obama is a very smart person, but he is not skilled in the back-and-forth of comic repartee. Unfortunately, it showed. The six-minute segment was painful to watch.
The discussion finally turned to health care when the president asked the moderator if he had ever heard of the Affordable Care Act. Galifianakis shot back, "That's the thing that doesn't work?" In a split second, Obama was on defense, and millions of viewers were reminded of the problems associated with the ACA's rollout.
The late Michael Deaver would never have let such a mess occur. Deaver was Deputy Chief of Staff in the Reagan White House and was Ronald Reagan's loyal aide who was famous for carefully staging every visual aspect of Reagan's public appearances -- down to the lighting, camera angle and audience. Media management was Deaver's portfolio, and he rarely made a mistake.
If Barack Obama really needed to appear on this show, his message should have been negotiated in advance and crafted in a way that played to his strengths. He could have said:
Zach, I really appreciate the chance to be on your show. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to address millions of your viewers and to urge those young people who may not yet have signed up for coverage under the Affordable Care Act to do so before March 31. Now, I know that your show is a comedy show, but I have to say that this subject is no laughing matter, because it is in the self-interest of every young American to make sure that they have appropriate health care coverage. That is what the Affordable Care Act now offers them.
We are now into the sixth year of Barack Obama's presidency, and the communications efforts are clearly lacking. Somebody in the White House should head out to the Reagan presidential library and spend some time in the archives studying how Deaver did it. There are still two years left to get it right.
Charles Kolb served in the first Bush White House from 1990 - 1992 as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy. From 1997 until 2012, he was President of the Committee for Economic Development, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. The views in this article are solely the author's.