The White House Does Not Have a Messaging Problem
As the narrator said at the beginning of Peter Pan, “All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.” I refer to the instinct of those under public siege to declare their dire straits to be “a message problem.”
The Biden White House is said to be facing such a challenge right now. Having been at this game for almost forty years, I beg to differ. The White House is actually facing an inflation problem.
And a brutal war in Ukraine problem.
And a baby formula supply problem.
And a high gas prices problem.
And a mass shootings problem.
And a violent crime problem.
But at some point, Churchill needed soldiers, ships, tanks, guns and planes.
Yes, messaging is important. But it’s also a racket and an excuse for weakness and failure. An old industrial client I’m thinking about didn’t fail to communicate; they had a chemical spill. When BP had its Deepwater Horizon accident in 2010, there was a direct correlation between when the gusher was plugged in the Gulf of Mexico and when the crisis began to recede from the news. The leak wasn’t plugged by a message; it was plugged by a 75-ton cap.
I once considered politics a career but abandoned it when I saw very starkly how national political servants were at the mercy of events. Nevertheless, we are a culture that believes in wizards more than we do external forces. There are no wizards, just professionals adept at exploiting things that are already happening in a way that benefits them and punishes their enemies.
There aren’t facile recommendations for things Biden can do, but there are lessons in what not to do. Two words come to mind: Jimmy Carter.
Carter’s presidency famously had parallels to Biden’s. Inflation. High gas prices. Foreign policy humiliations. Carter’s approach was to sulk and scold. Everybody hated it. Carter was challenged by an insurgent, Ted Kennedy, and lost the 1980 election in a landslide. His only memorable victory, by most accounts, was the Camp David Middle East peace agreement.
Americans abhor the theater of incompetence, and Biden isn’t helping himself by purportedly complaining that “everything lands on my desk except locusts.”
Magical thinking won’t spin away the multi-front messes Biden faces, but he can only control the controllable, which are actions he takes to confront these crises. Admittedly, these actions will include rhetoric. In the past few years, Democrats have gotten themselves stuck in the swamp of intensely unpopular rhetorical politics as being “soft on crime” in the wake of the George Floyd tragedy and the “defund the police” movement, which, to be clear, they never broadly supported. Meanwhile, news reports on crime are as distressing as I can ever recall.
Now, ultra-woke politics are capturing headlines, and many Americans of diverging politics view this as more than a sideshow. Rather, in many places, it’s the main event. Interestingly, former President Obama, no cultural conservative, has weighed in on self-destructive woke-ism, as has Democratic strategist James Carville. Perhaps the White House should be paying attention, including the new press secretary who began her first day with a self-reverential identity politics hip hip hurray! Which landed with a thud in the press office.
One of my least favorite tropes from rom-coms is the jilted partner saying something like, “It’s not that you broke up with me. It’s how you did it.” Clever, but rest assured, it’s actually that you broke up with them. Similarly, it’s not that the Biden White House is messaging incorrectly; after all, how do you message soaring gas prices? The problem, in this order, is the external events themselves and, to a lesser extent, some of the prevailing themes in the culture that lots of people just don’t like — and that are linked to the White House’s agenda.
Whenever someone we don’t like wins, we call it “spin” or, more recently, disinformation, as if it’s illegitimate. We need to realize that when Barack Obama said “Hope and Change” and Donald Trump said “Make America Great Again,” these vagaries aren’t so much “messaging” but convey core — and often repressed — emotions that express whatever people currently believe.
Americans currently believe that gas prices are too high, that crime is literally killing our children and that World War III may have begun in Ukraine. We don’t know what, if anything, will cure these ills, but we do know that Jimmy Carter didn’t find the right message with his impression of Winnie the Pooh’s Eeyore for all the decency he has shown in his post-presidency.