Strategic Error

Times Axelrod profile gets mixed up on messaging

Mark Leibovich’s front-page piece on the sufferings of David Axelrod in Sunday’s New York Times—the press apparently having decided to take a break, at least for the day, from Rahm Emanuel (Update: Or not!)—spends a lot of time cataloguing the political elite’s dissatisfaction with the Obama administration’s communications strategy, which Axelrod is charged with overseeing. We hear about “muddled messaging,” a White House that “lost the narrative,” and a “failure” to define Obama’s “agenda and accomplishments.” Even Axelrod, who rejects criticism on most specific counts, asks plaintively, “Why haven’t we broken through?”

While the White House’s spin strategy, and the way in which that strategy is evaluated by the rest of official Washington, are interesting subjects, they’re less useful in explaining political outcomes, or even the state of public opinion, than most people believe. This is a tough political environment for Barack Obama—one in which, all things considered, he’s faring reasonably well—and no amount of “messaging” or staff maneuvering is going to change that.

But even in terms of “messaging” the article misses some obvious points. This becomes clear near the end of the piece, when the ostensible cause for puzzlement is articulated:

Others question what happened to the Mr. Axelrod who so effectively marketed Mr. Obama, the candidate, as a change agent. He and some defenders, though, say that trying to explain a president who is dealing with a fusillade of difficult governing issues is far different.

It’s true that the task is different, but the article doesn’t really explain why. The various answers that are ventured as to what went wrong—Obama erred in taking a swipe at Bush during his Inaugural Address, undercutting his claims to bipartisanship; his administration has “communicated no overarching big idea,” leading his initiatives to appear scattershot and disconnected; as president, words need to be married to deeds in a way that they don’t on the campaign trail—all miss the key point, which is that the subject that Obama is trying to communicate about changed dramatically when he entered the White House.

As a candidate, Obama sent messages about lots of issues—health care, nuclear proliferation, America’s role in the world, race relations. But the most important subject about which he was communicating was himself. Every time Obama made an appearance on the stump, or gave a major address, he was selling some set of policies, but more importantly, he was selling his person. That was, for many people, an appealing subject. Moreover, it was a subject that a well-delivered speech can sell, and a subject on which Obama is the undisputed authority. (Sure, his political opponents tried to define him to suit their ends, but as long as he sent positive messages, he had the upper hand.)

As president, Obama still needs to do some of this, of course, and he’ll do more as 2012 approaches. But, now that he’s got an agenda to enact, he’s trying to “communicate” about other things—for example, the virtues of a wide-ranging effort to overhaul health care. That is a fundamentally different task. As Matthew Dickinson writes:

The promise of “change” on the campaign trail has little relevance to the difficulty of actually governing based on solving problems of extraordinary complexity against the backdrop of a polarized Congress, a weak Presidency, and an uncertain public. It’s one thing to run against a discredited incumbent party on the nebulous promise of change – it’s another to put forth particular solutions to incredibly complex problems, particularly when those solutions are inherently divisive and when the President lacks the capacity to compel support for his policies.

There’s plenty of reason to expect that presidents will be unable to move public opinion on contested issues, no matter the sophistication of their messaging strategy. One of the reasons for this is that voters actually do have policy preferences (or at least established political allegiances, which provide clues for how to think about policy). Another is that, when it comes to policy debates, the other side gets to talk too. Obama might be the Leader of the Free World, but on domestic policy he’s one voice among a quarrelsome chorus.

A top presidential aide is a worthwhile subject for a profile, and if the Beltway chatter is all about how that aide is struggling, that becomes, almost by default, part of the story. Still, we should expect our press corps, and especially The New York Times, to do more than capture the conversation in D.C. We need them to question it, challenge it, and just maybe teach readers something in the process.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.