Barack Obama Blames the Messenger

Does the president underestimate the importance of messaging, or does he exaggerate it?

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

For a guy who rose to the presidency in large part by relying on his abilities as a communicator, Barack Obama seems to have little regard for messaging. The president evinces a view of public relations as a distasteful business—one that is necessary, he grudgingly acknowledges, but also an essentially cosmetic, irrelevant one.

During an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep, Obama again tried to reassure citizens that ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States. “They can hurt us, and they can hurt our people and our families,” he said. “The most damage they can do, though, is if they start changing how we live and what our values are.”

He said one reason for the problem is his own communication. “Now on our side, I think that there is a legitimate criticism of what I've been doing and our administration has been doing in the sense that we haven't, you know, on a regular basis I think described all the work that we've been doing for more than a year now to defeat ISIL,” Obama said. Meanwhile, he blamed “the media” for “pursuing ratings.”

The president also said during an off-the-record conversation with columnists last week that his Oval Office address hadn't gone far enough, a shortcoming he attributed to his own failure to watch enough cable news to understand the depth of anxiety.

In other words, the strategy is working, and the White House just needs to communicate that better. The fights against domestic terror and ISIS alike are going great, if only people would understand it. But Obama’s impatience with the media and messaging is also clear. In some ways he may be right about the strategy. Despite the carnage in San Bernardino (and in Paris), ISIS is losing territory. That may be a long way from defeating them, but things are moving in the right direction. (Obama noted with some satisfaction that “those who are critics of our administration response, or the military, the intelligence response that we are currently mounting—when you ask them, well, what would you do instead, they don't have an answer.”)

This is humblebrag politics: I’m not great at explaining it, but man, am I great at policy. But does it accurately understand the problems, or what messaging entails? Obama views battlefield success against ISIS as the goal, and messaging as a simple process of telegraphing that. Messaging can be something greater than just the wrapping paper on the policy solution he has chosen. It’s about persuading people to come around to your side, not just telling them why your side is right.

This isn’t the first time Obama has insisted that everything’s going great and it’s just the wrapping paper that needs sprucing up. After the 2014 midterm election, which saw defeats for Democrats on all fronts, Obama told Bob Schieffer the problem was that he hadn’t communicated how well his administration was doing:

One thing that I do need to constantly remind myself and my team are is it's not enough just to build the better mousetrap. People don't automatically come beating to your door. We've got to sell it, we've got to reach out to the other side and where possible persuade. And I think there are times, there's no doubt about it where, you know, I think we have not been successful in going out there and letting people know what it is that we are trying to do and why this is the right direction. So there is a failure of politics there that we have got to improve on.

After the 2010 midterm “shellacking,” Obama was somewhat more conciliatory, saying, “I think that what I think is absolutely true is voters are not satisfied with the outcomes.” But even then, he wasn’t saying Republicans were right to oppose his stimulus; he was saying he hadn’t enacted an aggressive enough approach to create enough jobs. He wasn’t saying the price tags for the stimulus were too large; he was saying they seemed too large to many people.

In fact, many economists agree that he should have pursued a larger stimulus. There is widespread support for many components of the Affordable Care Act taken singly, despite the many more people who oppose the law in total. But it’s likely that many people would have opposed these efforts anyway. Some would have done so out of partisan, tribal loyalty, which motivates many people’s political positions. Others would have done so out of essential opposition to big-government programs. (Obama actually got at this, saying, “I think people started looking at all this and it felt as if government was getting much more intrusive into people’s lives than they were accustomed to”—though that “accustomed to” seems to again presume that with enough time and the right wrapping, they could be convinced.)

Many Democrats have long thought that white, blue-collar voters, who have gradually deserted the party since Ronald Reagan was running for president, were just waiting for the right approach to lure them back. Democrats look at them as clear allies who are voting against their own interest, if only they could be made to see that. Obama touched on that idea in his Inskeep interview, too:

But I do think that when you combine that demographic change with all the economic stresses that people have been going through because of the financial crisis, because of technology, because of globalization, the fact that wages and incomes have been flatlining for some time, and that particularly blue-collar men have had a lot of trouble in this new economy, where they are no longer getting the same bargain that they got when they were going to a factory and able to support their families on a single paycheck, you combine those things and it means that there is going to be potential anger, frustration, fear. Some of it justified but just misdirected. I think somebody like Mr. Trump is taking advantage of that. That's what he's exploiting during the course of his campaign.

This is really just a more delicate articulation of Obama’s infamous comments in 2008 about voters who “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” (Inskeep, in fact, mentioned those comments later in the interview.) And it’s not unlike Tom Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? thesis, about citizens voting against what liberals see as their own self-interest.

Many of the disagreements here are about more than messaging. Perhaps those white, working-class voters aren’t getting what they want out of the Democratic Party. (Group identity, rather than policy ignorance, probably goes a long way to explaining the discrepancy.) Maybe people wouldn’t be radically more supportive of Obama’s domestic-policy agenda if they just understood it better. The fact that no one else has a better idea for combating ISIS may indicate the magnitude of the challenge, not vindication for Obama. Explaining to voters why you're right often requires first taking seriously why they think you're wrong, and adapting underlying policies to address their concerns. Someone should figure out how to message that to the president.