I’m working on a story for the 7/11/11 issue of PR News on President Obama’s negative public opinion numbers, and what communicators should do if faced with a similar, seemingly immovable object (like the economy). I spoke to three PR pros with considerable experience in the political arena: Richard Levick, president of Levick Communications; Kent Jarrell, EVP at APCO Worldwide; and Ned Barnett, head of Barnett Communications. I asked them what specifically Obama could do to lift his chances for re-election next year, and the answers were illuminating. Here are some excerpts:
Levick: The President received a well-deserved bump after Osama Bin Laden was killed; but popularity is a fickle mistress. The Tip O’Neill wisdom that “all politics is local” still applies —and right now, unemployment is front and center at kitchen tables across America. The President’s ratings are walking hand-in-hand in hand with the peoples’ pocketbooks. Once again, “it’s the economy stupid.”
While there isn’t much the President can do to spur economic growth that hasn’t already been done, he does have the advantage of another 16 months during which recovery can accelerate. Add the fact that those vying for the Republican nomination will spend much of that time cannibalizing each other, and I don’t see the President shifting gears too dramatically in the coming months. Waiting is the best option he has on the top issue draining his numbers. He doesn’t need to go on the attack; as his opponents will attack themselves.
Jarrell: The PR strategy should not unnecessarily accentuate the positive. It has to accentuate reality. National security, terrorism and the two wars are pending issues, but James Carville’s warning to fellow campaign workers during the 1992 election, “it’s the economy stupid,” is just as relevant today , if not more so.
As a candidate, Obama was known for his effective use of soaring oratory that focused voters on “hope.” Now, his messages have to be more operational and grounded in leadership and tough decision making. The President has to continually speak in a tone that is consistent with what many Americans are feeling as the country goes through an economic transformation. There has to be plain talk about the realities of the future while not making the mistake Jimmy Carter made when he declared in a nationally televised speech that the American people were suffering from a “crisis of confidence.” I suspect that low economic poll numbers for the President are also driving down other numbers and that higher economic poll numbers will be a “tide that lifts all boats” when it comes to approval ratings.
Barnett: Here’s what Obama WILL do—His strategy will accentuate a positive that the facts may not bear out, and a positive that the voters (based on the polls) don’t see. On key issues that worry the public, I have seen Obama make statements that seem divorced from reality. He says the recession is over, but we have more people who’ve been unemployed for more than six months than at any time in our history (since we began keeping records). Afghanistan is a politically-driven dog’s breakfast, with the President going counter to his generals’ recommendations (even as he has his people “leak” that this was the general’s strategy).
Here is what Obama SHOULD do:
- Admit that despite all his efforts, this economy has proven more intractable than any expert (himself included) – let people who are hurting know that he feels their pain.
- Take bold actions to find new strategies (ones that are pragmatic, rather than ideological).
- Use the power of the Presidency to enact those bold actions in time for them to make a measurable difference in employment statistics before the election heats up.
- Learn from Bush 41: Military success in tough economic times is electorally meaningless.
If you were on Obama’s communications team, what would you suggest?
–Scott Van Camp