Where, Oh Where Is the Stimulus Story? Obama, Axelrod and Plouffe Are Committing Campaign Malpractice

by admin on October 17, 2012

This was originally posted on on October 17, 2012

Despite the praise being heaped on the president for not sleepwalking through the debate last night, one thing was — yet again — conspicuously absent: A single reference to his stimulus program, the most significant economic legislation of the last 50 years.

President Obama’s refusal to use his stimulus program as the engine of his re-election campaign is comparable — in its strategic incompetence and abject failure to construct a compelling narrative around it — to Al Gore’s stubborn resistance to use Bill Clinton in 2000. The results may be equally catastrophic.

The term “stimulus” wasn’t used a single time in the second presidential debate. Or the first one. Obama, Plouffe and Axelrod are clearly convinced the stimulus is political kryptonite. They’ve surrendered to the Republican framing — that it is an $800 billion-dollar failure, an historic boondoggle, a socialist takeover of government, a squandering of dough on chimerical green jobs, literally tilting at windmills.

These “Chicago guys” who’d do anything — as Welch put it in his infamous Tweet — have been intimidated into becoming stimulus-shy. The president’s website doesn’t celebrate the stimulus plan as part of his election rationale. It’s barely even there. Search “TARP” and the term doesn’t come up. Search “stimulus” and you get some random hits. It’s a mark of capitulation, even though a credible poll of economists, as reported in the Washington Post, found that four out of five economists believe it created jobs.

Of course, public skepticism about the stimulus was there at the beginning. A June 2010 poll from Pewfound that 60 percent of those asked believed the stimulus hadn’t helped the economy, versus 33 percent who did. The very low “Don’t Know” number — 7 percent — reminds us how deep and strongly held that impression is.

This was the warning sign for the president, and the fall elections of 2010, and his self-proclaimed “shellacking,” reinforced it.

From the beginning, Obama failed to explain the program in an accessible, concrete narrative that provided a counterweight to the Republican framing, which tapped into the emotionally available construct of government waste and inefficiency. I’ve been griping about this since February 2009 when I wrote a piece for the Daily Beast, which laid into Obama for not making the stimulus sexy. Nothing has changed. Do you hear any Democrats who voted for the stimulus, talking about it when they should be crowing on the campaign trail? It’s a measure of Republican marketing brilliance and shocking Democratic ineptitude.

But it’s not too late to reframe the stimulus and make it sing in Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Colorado and other state where the election hangs in the balance — largely based on the question of which candidate is better equipped to bring jobs and grow the economy. The president needs to say, in a full-throated and gutsy way, that the stimulus created more jobs in a year than Romney did in his entire career at Bain.

In the last weeks of the campaign they need to make the stimulus the beating heart of the president’s message, the pump of the stump speech, repeated ad and advertising nauseam. It’s a simple story. When I took office, we are inches from a Great Depression — all of that due to Republican incompetence.

The Economist points out in their review of Michael Grunewald’s The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era that “in the last quarter of 2008, the final three months of the Bush era, the American economy contracted by an astonishing 8.9 percent. By early 2009 job losses hit 800,000 a month.”

I think America was largely in denial then; we don’t remember, or have repressed just how desperate the situation was. And the president has failed to bring back those dark days with power and passion. He didn’t do it last night, either. What he says is “I inherited a mess.” He should never, ever use that casual term. A mess is what happens when Sasha and Malia have their girlfriends over to the Lincoln bedroom for a sleepover.

Put together a commercial that shows the stock market collapse, the tragic faces of the millions of lost jobs — and the children of the newly unemployed — the growing panic that we were rushing towards a depression, towards the 1930s and incalculable suffering. Evening in America, to reverse Reagan. Then describe the overwhelming conclusion of Democratic and Republican economists — including many who worked for Reagan and Bush — that the stimulus worked.

And contrast all that with the refusal of the Republican Congress to go along with it. Why? Because damaging the new president — and new is critical framing language, it ignites all the neural networks about the promise of hope and change — was more important than lifting the country up. Remind people that the ugly partisanship they hate and the refusal to compromise was the Republican strategy from day one.

The Economist supports that narrative, writing that Grunwald “lays out in shocking detail how the Republican leadership decided early and wholeheartedly not to co-operate with the new president” and notes the “degree of cynicism” that was involved.

The president prevented economic Armageddon in the first month of his administration. (End-of-days language works with the right.) It was heroic. It’s the reason we’ve gained jobs for 31 straight months. It’s why we can afford our iPhone 5s and why the housing market is starting to turn around and why many of the companies that Bain Capital help fund, are still around today.

The inability of the Obama team to turn this rescue of the economy into an emotional powerful, coherent and compelling political narrative is one of the biggest strategic failures of the last 50 years. It makes Jimmy Carter’s “malaise speech” — and of course we know he never said this words — look like FDR’s day of infamy moment or Churchill’s “blood sweat and tears.”

It remains to be seen whether the president and his advisors — a cautious bunch — have the courage to embrace his success and turn the program that stimulated the economy into one that can rescue his campaign.

A New Spot for President Obama That You’ve Seen Dozens of Times Before

by admin on October 16, 2012

Here’s the latest commercial output of Team Obama’s targeting factory, a commercial that speaks directly to young, female voters. Its mega weakness is that it uses one of the oldest political clichés in the world: meet the real Mitt Romney. That framing, along with the familiarity of the production technique – the anxious young woman, the ominous-sounding announcer, the conveniently truncated clips of the opponent – all serve to minimize, if not neutralize, the effectiveness of the spot. You’ve seen all these stereotypical elements before before, except not for this particular candidate. By the way, if Romney is out there broadcasting his opposition to contraception and to funding Planned Parenthood – as the clips show – then how could this spot pretend to reveal the “real” Mitt Romney? The other problem with this commercial – and with virtually all of both President Obama’s and Governor Romney’s efforts – is that there is virtually no story arc to these tiny little shards of putative persuasion. This stereotypically negative spot is a one-off, a lurch, a lunge. It’s doesn’t fit with a neat conceptual click into what should be a carefully constructed opposition narrative. What they should have done is connect this to Romney’s so-called “war on women.” What they need is a thematic commercial that speaks to the Supreme Court, to equal pay, and to subjects that every political consultant knows women care about: education, Head Start programs, the environment. This spot is emblematic of why political advertising has become so ineffective, so much aural and video wallpaper. Even if you agree with a message, you don’t want it to condescend to you, or bore you do death. Or both. Both the real Barack Obama and the real Mitt Romney are creatively and imaginatively challenged when it comes to what is one of the most important aspects of their campaigns: communicating with freshness through the popular medium of television.

Why Big Data Falls Short of Its Political Promise

by admin on October 2, 2012

Appeared on on October 2d, 2012

 Big Data. The very syntax of it is so damn imposing. It promises such relentless accuracy. It inspires so much trust –- a cohering framework in a time of chaos.

Big Data is all the buzz in consumer marketing. And the pundits are jabbering about 2012 as the year of Big Data in politics, much as social media itself was the dizzying buzz in 2008. Four years ago, Obama stunned us with his use of the web to raise money, to organize, to get out the vote. Now it’s all about Big Data’s ability to laser in with drone-like precision on small niches and individual voters, picking them off one by one.

It in its simplest form, Big Data describes the confluence of two forces — one technological, one social. The new technological reality is the amount of processing power and analytics now available, either free or at no cost. Google has helped pioneer that; as Wired puts it, one of its tools, called Dremel, makes “big data small.”

 Big Data has a role beyond digital clairvoyance. It’s the role  of digital genotyping in the political realm.

This level of mega-crunchability is what’s required to process the amount of data now available online, especially via social networks like Facebook andTwitter. Every time we Like something, it’s recorded on some cosmic abacus in the sky.

Then there’s our browsing history, captured and made available to advertisers through behavioral targeting. Add to that available public records on millions of voters — political consultants and media strategists have the ability drill down as god-like dentists.

Website TechPresident describes the conventional wisdom of Big Data as it relates to elections:

… data is dominating both the study and practice of political campaigns. Most observers readily acknowledge that the 2012 presidential campaign will be decided by the outcome of a handful of battles in just a few key swing states — identified thanks to the reckoning of data scientists and pollsters.

There are two sides to the use of Big Data. One is predictive — Twitter has its own sentiment index, analyzing tweets as 140-character barometers. Other companies, like GlobalPoint, aggregate social data and draw algorithmic conclusions.

But Big Data has a role beyond digital clairvoyance. It’s the role of digital genotyping in the political realm. Simply find the undecided voters and then message accordingly, based on clever connections and peeled-back insights into voter belief systems and purchase behaviors. Find the linkages and exploit them. If a swing voter in Ohio watches 30 Rock and scrubs with Mrs. Meyers Geranium hand soap, you know what sites to find her on and what issues she cares about. Tell them that your candidate supports their views, or perhaps more likely, call out your opponent’s demon views on geranium subsidies.

Central to this belief is that the election won’t be determined by big themes but by small interventions. Big Data’s governing heuristic is that shards of insight about you and your social network will lead to a new era of micro-persuasion. But there are three fallacies that undermine this shiny promise.

Michele Obama’s Eleanor and Oprah Moment

by admin on September 5, 2012

There were two figures who stood, invisibly but powerfully, behind Michele Obama as she gave her speech last night. Two women, generations apart, speaking through a third .

The first was Eleanor Roosevelt, who invented the concept of the modern first lady, and who in fact operated at a level of personal involvement and passion that has still been unequalled. (Mrs. Roosevelt gave 348 press conferences of her own, at which no male reporters were allowed.)

The second was Oprah Winfrey, who became the first African-American celebrity to command vast cultural attention – and achieve enormous influence – by using her personal story as an inspirational vehicle that encouraged others to accept and overcome their own struggles.

Mrs. Obama’s speech deftly wove together the leadership role of the First Lady as created by Mrs. Roosevelt, and the culture of introspection, emotion, and confessional drama that was the daily conversation on Oprah’s couch. Of course, the role of race can’t be ignored in this confluence of influence; Eleanor Roosevelt was a famous fighter for the rights of African-Americans. Oprah, of course, used to be the most famous black woman in the world.

The combination of these two strands – and the emotional self-confidence of the second would not have not possible without the pathfinding courage of the first – is the reason the speech was rapturously received by some, and well-accepted by others. As E. J. Dionne Jr. noted in the Washington Post, “As a general matter, her speech was a big hit: good enough that even Fox News was kind to her.”

Mrs. Obama began by recounting her travels across America. Eleanor Roosevelt was the first wife of a president to travel and make speeches on her own. The First Lady spoke of “teachers in a near-bankrupt school district who vowed to keep teaching without pay” and “people who become heroes at a moment’s notice…flying across the country to put out a fire.”

That was her Rooseveltian syntax. Then she pivoted directly to the Winfreyian; she spoke, from a mother’s point-of-view, about bringing up her daughters in the White House.

“While I believed deeply in my husband’s vision for this country…and I was certain he would make an extraordinary President…like any mother, I was worried about what it would mean for our girls if he got that chance.”

Then she goes full-on Oprah schmaltz:

“So when people ask me whether being in the White House has changed my husband, I can honestly say that when it comes to his character, and his convictions, and his heart, Barack Obama is still the same man I fell in love with all those years ago…

…I didn’t think it was possible, but today, I love my husband even more than I did four years ago…even more than I did 23 years ago, when we first met.”

Woven into this were moving vignettes of her father’s physical struggles with MS, and his extraordinary work ethic. This was both a spoken and unspoken rejoinder to the Republican attack on her husband for “gutting” the work requirement for welfare recipients. How could anyone whose father valued work so much, be married to someone who values work so little, she implicitly declared.

“…every morning, I watched my father wake up with a smile, grab his walker, prop himself up against the bathroom sink, and slowly shave and button his uniform.And when he returned home after a long day’s work, my brother and I would stand at the top of the stairs to our little apartment, patiently waiting to greet him…watching as he reached down to lift one leg, and then the other, to slowly climb his way into our arms.”

This is a very modern kind of sharing, though it clearly be scripted and politically-motivated sharing theater. Mrs. Roosevelt never spoke about her marriage or really all that much about Franklin (for reasons which are now obvious.) She lived in an era that was free of public introspection; it was rare for her to speak as personally as she did in her radio broadcast on the day after Pearl Harbor, which actually came before her husband’s famous “Day of Infamy” speech:

“I should like to say just a word to the women in the country tonight. I have a boy at sea on a destroyer, for all I know he may be on his way to the Pacific. Two of my children are in coast cities on the Pacific. Many of you all over the country have boys in the services who will now be called upon to go into action.”

Mrs. Roosevelt took on major issues, many of them controversial, the most scalding of the hot-buttons, and spoke ringingly in her voice. In that way she was even more modern than Michele Obama, whose causes are largely domestic and non-controversial, like childhood obesity and the inarguable goodness of growing your own zucchini.

So as we expected, there wasn’t much political red meat in this speech – other than a few not-so-veiled references to “playing by your own set of rules” which invoked the luxe, influence-rich world of Mitt Romney and Bain Capital.

And there certainly was no policy in this speech. There was no talk of “How.” That will be left to those later in the week, including her husband, who will lay out the policy prescriptions for job creation and deficit reduction and the roadmap to a vibrant economic future.

This was a speech about “Why.” Why Barack was the right choice then (the ancient year of 2008), and why he is the right choice now. Michele Obama – an historical figure in her own right – compellingly supplied her personal, emotional justification for the “why.” She did that by putting her story, and the president’s, in the ultimately American context of personal, odds-defying achievement. She argued that understanding leads to action.

“Barack knows the American Dream because he’s lived it…and he wants everyone in this country to have that same opportunity, no matter who we are, or where we’re from, or what we look like, or who we love.”

While the subtle gay marriage reference was pitched to the base – those who were in the hall, and those beyond the balloons – it was also perfectly tuned to the frequency of independents and undecideds.

The speech called back all the reasons that America voted to let her husband start the job. That moment and that national choice, those emotionally plangent chords – far more than arguments about Medicare or
“who built that” – will determine whether he gets to finish the job. It was the right pitch to make.

If President Obama is given his chance, it will be fascinating to watch whether a second term liberates the First Lady from the controversy-free confines of the vegetable patch. (Which, by the way, was Eleanor Roosevelt’s victory garden.)

It’s doubtful. While we can expect to see Michele Obama on the campaign, defending her husband and going after the Republicans, her advisors will be cautious about squandering her popularity with vitriol.

If the Obamas are returned, White House advisors will seek to maintain her popularity, and use it strategically. Which means we’ll see less Eleanor and more Oprah. So we’ll have to wait for the Obamas to leave the White House whether Mrs. Obama wants to assume a broader and more vigorous role in the national dialogue. That’s something we’ve always known she was capable of, and which was affirmed last night.

UPDATE: Why GOP Branding Isn’t Working

by admin on August 30, 2012

This is an update to the article featured on on August 29,2012

Update: Last night continued the brand confusion of the GOP.  Condi Rice gave a foreign-policy speech that brought back memories of her old boss, George Bush, who exited the White House with his loving dog Barney and an un-loving 34% approval rating.  She was exceptional, as even Chris Matthews agreed, although he found a way to turn his praise into an ambush question about the birthers.

But from Condi to Mike Huckabee is a journey from Bach to barbeque.  He was clearly there to froth up the base, and bestow an evangelical blessing on Mormonism.  Then there was Susan Martinez, the only female Latina governor, who was given prime time for obvious demographic reasons.  She was worth it. She has the plainspoken directness of Chris Christie – with a better personal narrative – and without his barely-controlled, full-body seething.  (Paul Ryan’s favorite band is “Rage Against the Machine”; Christie is a machine of rage.)

The lynchpin of the evening was Paul Ryan, who tried to focus the action on the economy and on his Austrian-economics world view, perhaps best captured in this line:

” None of us have to settle for the best this administration offers – a dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.”

If you read the text of all the speeches – an exercise I could not in good conscience advise – you’d find a lack of brand coherence, other than the argument that we have a well-intentioned, big-spending, socialist flop in the White House.  But this election is all about the persuadables, as I discuss in my piece, and a well-managed brand would refract everything through  the clarity of that lens.  Needlessly inflammatory rhetoric – like  Mike Huckabee declaring that the president “believes that human life is disposable and expendable at any time in the womb or even beyond the womb” – is Kryptonite to the persuadables.  (Note to spell check: Add “Kryptonite” immediately.)

Yes, red meat may thrill the carnivores in the room.  But a well-managed brand keeps the end in mind, and the cover-every-base diffusion we’re seeing in Tampa reveals a lack of control.  We’ll see if Romney pulls it all together, later today.

You can read the original article here>>.