At this crucial juncture in the push to pass an economic recovery package, President Obama finds himself in the most unlikely of places: He is losing the message war.
Despite Obama’s sky high personal approval ratings, polls show support has declined for his stimulus bill since Republicans and their conservative talk-radio allies began railing against what they labeled as pork barrel spending within it.
The sheer size of it – hovering at about $900 billion — has prompted more protests that are now causing some moderate and conservative Democrats to flinch and, worse, hesitate.
The anxiety over lost momentum seemed almost palpable this week as the president in television interviews voiced frustration with his White House’s progress and the way his recovery program was being demonized as a Democratic spending frenzy.
In Obama’s own words in an NBC interview, it’s his job to “get this thing back on track.”
Already, he’s trying – rolling out Michelle Obama to talk stimulus Wednesday, Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday (at a train station, no less) and sitting down with key senators one-on-one.
But this is unfamiliar turf for a team that achieved near epic status for its communication skills during the presidential campaign. They’ve rarely ever had to play catch-up.
With the president’s gifted oratory and a technologically savvy team, the Obama camp was able to seize control of the national conversation as early as April and never fully relinquish it right through his Inaugural Address two weeks ago.
To be sure, some of Obama’s headaches stem from the normal dysfunction that occurs when a White House is in transition. Phones don’t work, chains of command are fuzzy, and there are formalities that need tending to.
But the Obama team also made its own mistakes. The president’s troubled cabinet nominees added to the cacophony that at times drowned out the White House economic messages in the past two weeks.
And it seems more apparent each day that the nascent Obama Administration isn’t fully prepared for the task at hand.
The president’s decision to push through a massive stimulus bill, while perhaps unavoidable, is forcing the much-vaunted Chicago crowd to adapt at lightning speed to its more skillful adversaries on Capitol Hill, while at the same time taking a crash course on harnessing the full power of bully pulpit. If he doesn’t figure it out soon, Obama is likely to find out that his stimulus package looks very different than he had in mind indeed.
The Jetsons versus the Flinstones
Obama’s campaign was lauded for its visionary use of modern tools for old-fashioned politics. Through the Internet, it recruited supporters, collected dollars, rallied supporters and organized get-out-the vote operations.
But when these modern heroes arrived at the White House, it was like the lights all went out.
Their contact with their millions-fold supporters was cut off, literally, as e-mail systems broke down and ‘The List’ of political supporters was blocked at the iron gate.
To meet government ethics rules, the campaign operation and its grassroots army were forced to de-camp to the Democratic National Committee, robbing the president of one of his most potent political weapons just as the stimulus bill was under consideration in the House.
But while the White House team struggled to adapt, it was business as usual on Capitol Hill for Republicans.
They could practically sleep-walk through their attack plan once House Democrats began to fill in Obama’s broad outlines for a stimulus with a few pet projects of their own.
It required two simple steps: Scream pork, call Rush Limbaugh.
They even could have even used a rotary phone.
The result: Every House Republican saw a free pass and voted against the first version of the bill.
The outcome is not surprising. Obama had roughly 90 people working at his headquarters on Internet outreach and new technology projects, observes Joe Trippi, a Democratic operative who broke new ground on modern campaigning during Howard Dean’s 2004 Democratic primary bid.
Even with closet-sized spaces, the White House can only accommodate about only about 200 or so people for jobs ranging from national security to health care reform to Internet guru.
The Obama team “built this incredible campaign and now they have these ridiculously primitive tools. The communication tools they mastered don’t exist in the White House. It’s like they are in a cave,” said Trippi.
“Then there are the masters of the Stone Age and they are doing a good job,” he added.
Learning to play well with others
During the campaign, Obama had complete control over his message. Now, he doesn’t and that’s not an easy adjustment for any president.
Obama must suddenly yield turf to both Capitol Hill and outside interest groups who are trying to help. The results in both cases can be messy.
Obama’s decision to provide broad guidelines for the stimulus -- “targeted, timely and temporary” -- rather than issuing specific legislation, was done in deference to Hill lawmakers, especially the Democratic leaders that lord over the legislative branch.
But it’s hardly a secret that the president found unhelpful the House Democrats’ decision to slip funding for special groups into its version of his stimulus bill.
Funding to allow Medicaid programs to provide contraceptives as part of its family planning services to low income recipients was the Republicans’ first easy mark for attacking the legislation.
“How you can spend hundreds of millions of dollars on contraceptives -- how does that stimulate the economy?” House Minority Leader John Boehner asked.
With a phone call from the White House, Obama had that provision stripped from the legislation but the damage was done and Republicans soon moved to the next so-called pork project to launch a new attack.
Senate Democrats have vowed to strip those measures from the bill. But now moderate senators, including some Democrats, uneasy with the size of the package are considering trimming one of Obama’s top priorities: providing seed money for doctors and hospitals to begin computerizing patient records, a first step in broader reforms he plans to offer on health care.
Similar disconnects are evident in the public campaign for the legislation.
A host of unions and liberal advocacy groups have stepped up to try to help Obama move the legislation through Congress. Their intentions are all good, but it’s an untested alliance given the Obama’s decision to shun such independent support in the campaign. The effort also lacks the dramatic punch -- and deep pockets -- that became the signature of his campaign.
According to Evan Tracey, president of Campaign Media Analysis Group, about $65,000 has been spent on pro-stimulus ads in a handful of states.
In the last week of the presidential campaign, Obama was spending an average of $250,000 a day on commercials in the Philadelphia market, alone.
The pro-stimulus television ads aired by the outside coalitions echo Obama’s message about helping working families survive the worst economic conditions since World War II.
But the legally required lack of coordination between the White House and it’s newest allies has led to other inefficiencies.
Among the targets of the television ad campaign was New Hampshire Republican Sen. Judd Gregg. Just days later, Obama nominated Gregg to become his new Commerce Secretary.
More discordant, however, was the impact of a radio ad by Americans United for Change.
“Are you with Rush or with Obama?” the commentator asked.
The commercial ran in only three states, but it wound up capturing national headlines, elevating a mere radio talk show host to presidential status and sending the White House efforts to recruit moderate Republican support wildly off message.
Owning the bully pulpit
During the presidential campaign, Obama’s team used big events to elevate the candidate’s big ideas or respond to emerging, divisive issues. Remember Philadelphia and the big speech on race relations?
That’s not so easy to do in the White House, which thrives on its own rhythms and traditions.
Obama has certainly tried to exploit those opportunities, offering radio addresses and using what seem to be such routine administration events as announcing a new cabinet pick to pitch the recovery package.
In addition, he has fallen back on the time honored White House photo-op/meet-and-greet to drive the news of the day.
But the Obama team hasn’t mastered the less-is-more formula that isolates a presidential appearance for maximum impact.
Simply put, the way to exploit a White House moment is not to compete with it.
That kind of PR self control can drive the coverage from the relentless and omnipresent cable outlets back -- again and again -- to that singular event.
But the new White House sometimes runs over its own, central economic message.
For instance, Obama hosted at the White House nearly a dozen corporate executives who support his recovery package on the same day the House passed its version of the legislation on a party line vote.
As a consequence, the support for the legislation from a host of cutting edge technology CEOs was buried amid coverage of the lack of a single House Republican vote in favor of it.
On Monday the White House tried again.
Obama had sought to illustrate the support he has among governors for the stimulus package by inviting Republican Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas for remarks.
But that news was quickly overtaken by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s swearing in ceremony.
Indeed, the Obama team has yet to fully exploit the open and enthusiastic support it has received from such higher profile Republican governors as Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California for his stimulus program.
Eric Eikenberg, Crist’s chief of staff, said in an interview this week that his boss is hoping federal aid can help the Sunshine State avoid significant layoffs and that the governor is burning the phone lines to turn Republican opposition on Capitol Hill into support.
“This can help Florida,” Eikenberg said.
But when White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs had a chance to highlight that support on Wednesday, he referred reporters to television interviews of Crist on cable networks rather than an Oval Office moment.
To make matter worse, the White House’s failure to space out events took another toll on its economic public relations campaign.
Just hours after Obama issued new rules on corporate compensation aimed at renewing public support for his recovery package, he signed a major bill expanding health care for children.
“To me, each one of those is a stand alone event,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic political consultant. “There is a risk of overwhelming things.”
When the campaign is over, the tasks and the challenges are different. In addition, you need results. Obama is roughly a month in office. No wonder he still need to get the full control over the White House and his own new schedule for the next four years. The dangers of an almost perfect PR electoral campaign is to rise high expectations, diluted after - and quite easy - in an ocean of despair. I'm very very curious how his working communications campaign will look like.