“You Can’t Be Neglecting of Marketing and P.R.”
It doesn’t get much more emblematic of the plutocratic nothingness of what passes for a democratic political culture in the U.S. than a recent televised conversation between United States President Barack Obama and “CBS This Morning” anchor Charlie Rose. Reflecting on “what we've done well and what we haven't done well," Obama told Rose that "the mistake of my first term – couple of years – was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right."
While good policy is important, Obama elaborated, “the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times." The problem with his first term, he said was (in essence) an excess of substance relative to style.
Obama claimed to find this failure ironic. “It’s funny,” the president told Rose, “….when I ran, everybody said, 'well he can give a good speech but can he actually manage the job?’ And in my first two years, I think the notion was, 'Well, he's been juggling and managing a lot of stuff, but where's the story that tells us where he's going?' And I think that was a legitimate criticism."
How will he address this problem? By “getting out of this town, spending more time with the American people, listening to them, and also, then, being in a conversation with them about where do we go together as a country, I need to do a better job of that in my second term," the president told Rose. He wants not merely to “explain” but also to “inspire.”
"Because hope is still there," First Lady Michelle Obama added.
It’s not the first time Obama has told the media that his problem is a matter of privileging policy over rhetoric and being in touch with “the people.” After his poll numbers fell in 2010, Obama told New York Times reporter Peter Baker that he had come up short in communicating with the American citizens. “Given how much stuff was coming at us,” Obama said, “we probably spent much more time trying to get the policy right [emphasis added] than trying to get the politics right. There is probably a perverse pride in my administration — and I take responsibility for this; this was blowing from the top — that we were going to do the right thing [emphasis added], even if short-term it was unpopular. And I think anybody who’s occupied this office has to remember that success is determined by an intersection in policy and politics and that you can’t be neglecting of marketing and P.R. and public opinion.”
Does Presidential Persuasion Matter?
Forget for a moment whatever discomfort you might have about the paternalistic notion that presidential statesmanship involves spinning tales and weaving narratives for the childlike citizenry. Yes, story time is for parents or grandchildren or baby-sitters and small children, not “we the people” and our purported elected representatives.
Forget also a curious finding of political scientists who seriously investigate presidential rhetoric: it has little if any impact on political and policy outcomes. Presidential speeches, it appears, don’t make any difference in winning political and policy gains. When you are contending for the presidency, great speech-making helps the candidate achieve his or her key goal: getting elected. Under the American political system, however, giving a good speech can actually help prevent a sitting president from achieving his post-election goals. The key problem is that under that system, as Ezra Klein recently explained in The New Yorker, a “democratically elected president can come from one party and a democratically elected legislature from another. Both sides end up having control over some levers of power, a claim to be carrying out the will of the public, and incentives that point in opposite directions.” A good oratorical moment for a president only steels the determination of his partisan opponents in the legislative branch to deny him the ability to translate the “bully pulpit” into success. As Klein notes, “Presidential persuasion might actually have an anti-persuasive effect on the opposing party in Congress…because our system of government usually requires at least some members of the opposition to work with the President if anything is to get done, that suggests that the President’s attempts at persuasion might have the perverse effect of making it harder for him to govern.”
Speeches make much less difference than partisan alignment between the executive and legislative branches and the state of the economy when it comes to determining the policy and political achievements of a president. Speaking of the economy, the leading Democratic political operative and former Clinton presidency communications expert Paul Begala put things very well to Klein: “The Titanic had an iceberg problem. It did not have a communications problem. Right now, the President has a jobs problem. If Obama had four-percent employment, he would be on Mt. Rushmore already and people would look at Nancy Pelosi like Lady Gaga.”
Even Obama’s top media maven David Axelrod gets it that better communication strategies won’t change things. “Some folks in politics,” Axlerod told Klein last spring, “believe this is all just a rhetorical game, but when you’re governing it’s not. People are viewing their lives through the lens of their own experience, not waiting for you to describe to them what they’re seeing or feeling.” Imagine.
It makes sense that Obama seems particularly attached to the power of communication. His rise to notoriety and to the presidency was particularly connected to speechmaking and most particularly to his widely lauded Keynote Address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
“Getting the Policy Right”?
But put these problems aside for a moment and think about “the policy” that Obama says his administration “got right.” Amidst the rising misery of the Great Recession’s fully flowering in 2008 and 2009, Washington rushed to bail out the corporate and financial institutions that had crashed the economy while claiming to have empty pockets when it came to helping ordinary working people. The epic transfer of trillions of taxpayer dollars to Wall Street started under George W. Bush and proceeded to record-setting levels under Barack Obama. It was not accompanied by any comparable aid for the millions of Americans who were running out of ammunition in the war on destitution. It was not matched by any remotely adequate government investment in urgently needed public works and jobs programs, housing assistance, or cash assistance for families.
The liberal commentator William Greider put it well in March 2009, when the Treasury Department announced that the Wall Street mega-firm AIG would be receiving an additional $30 billion in federal assistance on top of the $60 billion it had already gotten, and after news emerged that AIG had paid out $165 million in bonuses to its top managers. “People everywhere [have] learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t,” Greider wrote in The Washington Post: “They [have] watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They [have] learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it.”
Indeed, the Obama administration has provided a tutorial on who really rules America. The “change” and “hope” presidency brilliantly demonstrated the reach of what Edward S. Herman and David Peterson call “the unelected dictatorship of money,” which vetoes any official who might seek “to change the foreign or domestic priorities of the imperial U.S. regime.” Along with continuing the monumental bailout of the ultra-rich financial overlords, the Obama administration refused to nationalize and or even significantly regulate the parasitic financial institutions that had paralyzed the economy. It passed a health-insurance bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love. It passed a stimulus measure that fell very short of the requirements for restoring durable recovery. It cut a bailout deal with the automobile industry that rewarded capital flight and raided union pension funds. It undermined desperately needed global efforts to reduce carbon emissions, at conferences in Copenhagen in 2009 and Durban in 2011. It refused to develop serious public-works programs (green or otherwise). It green-lighted offshore drilling and other environmentally disastrous practices. It extended Bush’s tax cuts for the rich. It froze federal wages and salaries. It made a debt-ceiling deal in 2011 that would slash social programs instead of raising taxes on the rich. It disregarded its promises to labor and repeatedly betrayed the constituencies in its progressive base. It blathered on in Republican-like terms about the supposed grave danger of deficits, indifferent to majority public opinion that joblessness was the nation’s greatest problem and to standard textbook economics showing that a recession was no time to be holding back on government spending.
All in all, it kept promises it had quietly made to its Wall Street and corporate sponsors, who had set new campaign finance records in backing Obama in 2008. As a result, the technical economic “recovery” remains remarkably tepid, plagued by doggedly persistent high joblessness and weak wages and salaries reflecting a lingering “human recession” that keeps half the population officially “low income” more than a third of the population either in poverty or “near poor” at or below 150% of the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level.
What’s so great about this conservative, business-friendly policy record? It’s hardly the stuff of “hope” and “optimism” for any but the wealthy Few. And just what sort of pacifying story should Obama have constructed, exactly, to make this record seem inspirational to a populace that has long believed that large corporations and financial interests exercise excessive and undue influence over American “democracy?”
“Expectation Calibration is Essential”
In reality, of course, he has never completely dropped his and the Democratic Party’s deceptive, populism-manipulating claim to represent the working class majority of Americans in their timeworn struggle with the rich and powerful and the business-captive Republican Party. Insofar as it is true that the Obama phenomenon moved from stirring narrative to nitty-gritty policy detail when candidate-selling gave way to actual governance, moreover, this was hardly just due to public relations negligence. Story time was reduced because the Obama campaign’s fairy tales of “Hope,” “Change,” and (vaguely defined) democratic transformation were little more than branding games meant to bring about a narrow partisan personnel shift in the management of neoliberal state-capitalism. The candidate’s democratic- and progressive-sounding promises and imagery did not fit the cold plutocratic realities of governance imposed by the aforementioned unelected dictatorship. They raised popular hopes that now required careful management and – to use the terminology of early Obama advisor (and leading champion of “humanitarian” imperialism) Samantha Power – “expectation calibration.”
Which brings us back to Charlie Rose, the unparalleled, ubiquitous and obsequious interviewer of elites. An early indication of popular Obamanistic betrayals to come emerged in late February of 2008, when the Harvard professor Power appeared on the syndicated “Charlie Rose Show” (the one with the jazzy, Seinfeld-like theme song that you get on PBS). Noting that George W. Bush had recently been swamped by cries of “O-ba-ma” during a recent state visit to Africa, Rose asked Power if she was concerned about the “sky-high expectations” much of the world seemed to have for an Obama presidency. There is “a danger” in this, Rose worried. Yes, Power said, noting that Obama was concerned about unrealistic hopes and adding that “that’s why expectation calibration and expectation management is essential at home and internationally.” 
Behind this disturbing application of elitist and technocratic language to the supervision of domestic and global opinion and hopes lay an obvious if unstated admission: Obama was going to disappoint expectant masses in U.S. and across the world The peoples’ faith in change needed to be carefully, downwardly coordinated
“To Manage Expectations and Gently Tamp Them Down”
Truth be told, Obama indicated from the beginning of his presidency that he intended to serve his corporate and Wall Street masters by toning down popular expectations. Listen to the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind’s account of Obama’s Election Night speech in his book Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President:
‘He had thought about this victory a thousand times before – what it would look like, what it would mean but before he even stepped on the stage, into that very moment for which he had been waiting his whole life, he grabbed [his top media consultant David] Axelrod and told him to cancel the fireworks. Too celebratory. The country was in crisis, after all, and it was the wrong tone.’
‘In this moment has brought to ignition, his response was to manage expectations and gently tamp them down [emphasis added]… Obama turned to deliver a speech that, from the start, struck a subdued tone. It was as much his manner as his words, which began memorably: ‘
‘“If there is anyone out there who doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”’
‘And what did the answer consist in?’
‘“It’s the answer that led those, who have been told for so long, to be cynical and fearful and doubtful of what we can achieve, to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day. It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.”’