Spinning With Obama

President Obama is groomed for an interview with Chuck Todd, 2014 (White House / Pete Souza)

As Americans prepare to turn the page on Barack Obama’s presidency, the rousing 2008 campaign that started it all is taking on a nostalgic glow. None of the contenders vying to succeed Obama has conjured anything like the fervor that he sparked seven years ago; his bolt-from-the-blue crusade seems even more extraordinary now than it did then. At the same time, the elusiveness of the post-partisanship he hoped to cultivate and the persistence of the racial conflict he vowed to transcend have left many supporters wistful or embittered. Only last summer—after a string of liberal victories at the Supreme Court and a soaring eulogy from Obama for the slain South Carolina pastor Clementa Pinckney—did his approval ratings again nose above 50 percent.

At the close of his presidency Obama thus faces a question he has confronted throughout his tenure: why the gap between his ability to electrify the electorate in 2008 and his struggles as president to excite, let alone unify, the American public?

For seven years, the most frequent answer has been a failure to communicate. We often hear that Obama’s great powers of persuasion deserted him—that, as the columnist Richard Cohen wrote in 2014, he’s like a great pitcher who lost his fastball. Back in 2008, Obama was hailed for delivering uplifting speeches to thousands of fans thronged in arenas and parks. His crack polling team honed devastating messages against Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Acolytes spread his videos virally, like early Christian apostles sharing their creed. “Obama was the object of near-veneration,” concluded the New Yorker‘s Ken Auletta, “possessed of a persona and a campaign that were irresistibly compelling to all but his rivals and the right-wing press.” At the White House Press Correspondents’ Association Dinner in 2009, the new president said to the assembled journalists, “Most of you covered me; all of you voted for me.”

But president Obama has mostly failed to galvanize the public—not through the press corps, nor through his speeches, nor through other channels of communication. Like all presidents, he has had ups as well as downs—and in recent months some important ups—but apart from a honeymoon following each of his election victories, there have been no sustained runs of positive coverage or public love. The tactics that worked on the 2008 campaign trail proved ineffective once he got to the White House. His press shop lurched from one crisis to the next. His major speeches fell flat. Twenty-first century gimmicks—a Twitter feed, a White House videographer, the guest spots on popular shows like Between Two Ferns and the WTF podcast with Marc Maron—generated buzz for their novelty value but left no lasting impact.

Obama himself has endorsed the idea that his troubles have resulted from bad spin. “Our attitude was we just have to get the policy right,” he said on the midterm campaign trail in 2010, before the Republican blowout that year. “We did not think about making sure we were advertising properly what was going on.” Two years later, as his own re-nomination approached, he offered Charlie Rose the same interpretation. “The mistake of my first term . . . was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. And that’s important. But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people.”

This explanation is comforting, no doubt, not only to the president but also to all of us who have rooted for him these many years. It implies that he fell short not because of the unpopularity of his ideas or of deficiencies of leadership, but only because he botched the putatively lesser job of messaging. His policies were fine, it reassures us; it was just the spin that was lacking. And, anyway, shouldn’t it be a badge of honor that he wasn’t consumed, like so many politicians, with burnishing his own image?

Seductive though that argument is, it doesn’t hold up—for several reasons. For one thing, it’s just not tenable to assert that Obama treated spin as an afterthought. From the start of his presidency he retained an expert, dedicated cadre of communications specialists, who worked at least as hard as any spin doctors from previous presidencies. The administration, wrote the media critic Michael Wolff in 2009, began with fourteen press office employees and an additional forty-seven media personnel, “significantly more than the communications staffs of many Fortune 500 corporations.” Like other presidential spin doctors, they found that exciting voters during a time-limited campaign, behind a single individual, is altogether different from sustaining popular support amid the quotidian work of running the country, especially in tough times.

Equally important, the argument that Obama governed magnificently but simply failed to convince the public of his achievements—that either his own spin was lousy, or his opponents’ spin somehow deluded the public—flies in the face of decades of communications research. It has long been established that people with strong preexisting beliefs and attachments will resist political persuasion, that they’re much more skeptical of government publicity or other forms of political propaganda than popular mythology would suppose. Recent work in neuroscience and behavioral psychology has confirmed the stubbornness of political opinion and the uphill battle that even the most eloquent or media-savvy leaders face in changing it.

The notion that Obama is the victim of bad spin is belied, finally, by the examples of his Oval Office predecessors, whose experiences presaged his own. To attribute a president’s difficulties to failures of “advertising” or communication has been a refuge of presidents and their supporters at least since the time of Theodore Roosevelt, who can be credited with building the first modern White House publicity machine. Many of Obama’s forerunners—including Herbert Hoover, Lyndon Johnson, and others—began their tenures basking in praise for their speechmaking or their media relations, only to be judged deficient in those areas when things went south. Bad spin turns out to be not a cause of presidential difficulties so much as a symptom.

 

Spin, like all things, has a history. In ancient Greece, orators schooled themselves in the art of rhetoric, seeking to persuade the citizenry with appeals to reason and emotion. In the following centuries, political leaders used an assortment of tools to promote themselves and their agendas—from court portraitists who upheld idealized images of the monarch to party newspapers that touted the virtues of the first American presidents. With the dawn of the twentieth century, modern presidents, led by Roosevelt, built the White House spin machine we know today.

The development of White House spin came out of the upheaval of the Gilded Age: the industrial revolution, urbanization, the influx of immigrants, the rise of the middle class. The sprawling mass democracy that Roosevelt confronted as president in 1901 was beset by new social and economic problems, and Roosevelt, like other Progressives, believed they demanded an activist president. To set a national agenda, Roosevelt marshaled public opinion behind his goals, developing an arsenal of communication tools. Touring widely, delivering speeches, romancing journalists, convening press conferences, issuing press releases, staging publicity stunts, hiring dedicated press aides, and otherwise commanding public attention, he did more than anyone to make what we now call “spin” central to presidential governance. At the time Roosevelt’s critics often assailed him for his theatrics, suggesting he owed his success only to his skill with media politics. But this was shortsighted, as the philosopher John Dewey, among others, pointed out. “A petty deed cannot be made great by heralding,” Dewey wrote, noting that Roosevelt’s “acts commanded publicity because they were in the first place of a quality to command attention.”

After Roosevelt, it became clear that any effective president would have to become proficient in public communication. Those who didn’t, like Roosevelt’s unlucky successor William Howard Taft, typically sank into disfavor. But the new importance of public communication didn’t mean, then or now, that a strong presidency rested only on the tools and techniques that Roosevelt developed. Then as now, the inside game of working with Congress counted as much as the outside game of going over the legislators’ heads. Then as now, successful presidents also had to devise policies to solve problems, make difficult choices, cut deals, argue, compromise, strategize—and lead.

 

By the time Herbert Hoover ran for president in 1928, the tools and techniques that Roosevelt pioneered had become staples of public opinion leadership. As he ascended politically, Hoover was deemed a wizard with these new arts. “Mr. Hoover’s ascent to the presidency was planned with great care and assisted throughout by a high-powered propaganda of the latest model,” commented the political commentator Walter Lippmann. The columnist Drew Pearson similarly branded Hoover “one of the great super-promoters of the age, a man who had been able by a consummate sense of publicity to create the illusion of heroism and greatness and to attain world acclaim.” But as president, Hoover found few such accolades forthcoming.

As commerce secretary under Presidents Harding and Coolidge, Hoover had been a whirlwind. Coolidge had sent him to tackle the 1927 Mississippi flood, one of the worst natural disasters in American history until Hurricane Katrina. Facing an unprecedented rescue, relief, and recovery effort, Hoover set up headquarters in Memphis, traveling the river valley for three months, winning headlines and plaudits. The New York Times Magazine hailed his “genius”; National Geographic ran a huge spread about his efforts, decorated with fifty-three photographs of Hoover tending to the dispossessed. He designed his radio speeches so audiences could hear the river roaring behind him.

Herbert Hoover listening to the radio, 1925. (Library of Congress)

The next year, as his party’s presidential nominee, Hoover had his team produce an hour-long campaign film, Master of Emergencies, a landmark in the genre. A high-quality, professional production, it surveyed Hoover’s career as savior of the dispossessed, from his role in feeding desperate Europeans after the First World War to his heroics on the Mississippi. The movie’s footage included aerial shots of submerged river towns, profiles of a purposeful Hoover surveying the scene, and close-ups of grateful children, black and white, fed by Hoover’s teams. The journalist Will Irwin, a friend who helped script the film, told Hoover that audiences “were sobbing all over the house. And when they cry, you’ve got ’em.”

But several months into Hoover’s first term came the crash of October 1929, followed by the Great Depression. Hoover’s gifts of self-promotion, his storied ability to romance the press, vanished. Hoover’s inability to reverse the worst economic downturn the country had known left Americans disappointed and angry. “My friends have made the American people think me a sort of superman, able to cope successfully with the most difficult and complicated problems,” he lamented. “They expect the impossible of me . . .” Hoover hadn’t changed, but what were once virtues became vices. His technocratic polish now appeared as a contemptuous aloofness.

The problem couldn’t be reduced to poor communication. After all, his “White House publicity machine,” noted the correspondent Frederick Essary, remained “the greatest propaganda establishment in the world”; it churned out “daily presidential speeches, messages, proclamations, pronouncements, executive orders, appointments . . . guest lists, dinner and reception arrangements (not forgetting the flowers on the table), and tributes to deceased football coaches and foreign potentates.” Hoover even set up a governmental newspaper that ran pro-Hoover puffery. It folded after three issues.

Hoover also called on the leading spin doctors of his day, including Albert Lasker of the Lord & Thomas advertising agency and Bruce Barton of BBDO. Neither was much help. The president even created an Emergency Committee for Employment, enlisting Edward Bernays—nephew of Sigmund Freud, known (hyperbolically) as the father of public relations. Bernays was celebrated for the clever tricks he devised on behalf of his clients, like the soap sculpture contest he held to get free ink for Ivory. But even he recognized the limits of spin. In joining the Hoover committee, he asked that it avoid “the purely inspirational and exhortative appeal” and provide facts about the administration’s accomplishments in boosting employment.

The president failed to heed that advice. He also balked at the committee’s concrete recommendations, such as a multi-million-dollar highway construction and public works program. Bernays threw up his hands; he wasn’t a magician. “It was,” he concluded resignedly, “really a public relations committee.” The Nation mocked Hoover’s program: “Relief by Publicity.”

If spin couldn’t save Hoover from the Depression, neither could it rescue Lyndon Johnson from the Vietnam War. This wasn’t because LBJ lacked media talents. On the contrary, those gifts were considerable, and, for a while, amply recognized.

Though he was later compared invidiously to JFK as an orator, Johnson defined his early presidency with two historic speeches. In his November 27, 1963 address to Congress, days after Kennedy’s murder, he framed his pledge of continued activism around a phrase from Kennedy’s inaugural. Where JFK had said, “Let us begin,” LBJ promised, “Let us continue.” Attentive to style as well as substance, Johnson took pains to perfect his delivery. Conquering his tendency to shout and rush his words, he typed his remarks into one-sentence paragraphs so he would read slowly, and he hand-wrote “pause” at the end of each paragraph. His performance was duly extolled in the newspapers. The Washington Post complimented his “slow, solemn, measured” delivery.

Six months later, in a commencement speech at the University of Michigan football stadium, Johnson did it again. Laying out his “Great Society,” he brought the crowd of 80,000 to its feet. He was so euphoric that in returning to Washington on Air Force One, he tossed aside his usual daytime abstemiousness and downed a scotch highball while chatting with reporters. Praise flowed in from the likes of the New York Times‘s James Reston and Time magazine’s Henry Luce, a longtime Republican who told the president that the speech had won him over.

LBJ showed proficiency not only with the venerable presidential tool of the bully pulpit but also with the newer instrument of television. In March 1964, he sat for an hour-long interview with reporters from the three main networks. Again, pundits applauded. “The president has no reason now to worry about himself as a performer on TV,” Lippmann declared. “In his interview on Sunday night he was never at a loss for words or facts, or for grammar or syntax, and was immediately and shrewdly aware not only of the meaning of the questions put to him but of how his answers would be taken by the great audience.” Professing faith in Johnson’s leadership, Lippmann deemed the public fortunate to have “a president whom they trust completely.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing the use of “conventional” military force in Vietnam, August 10, 1964. (LBJ Museum and Library)

Soon, though, the war was turning the public against the president. Like Hoover, LBJ found that inspiring enthusiasm for a presidential candidacy was easier than winning support for a policy. (During crises, the public will rally around the president, but that support fades fast.) Like Hoover, too, LBJ saw his once-cherished qualities suddenly derided. The coarse idiosyncrasies he learned as a boy in the Texas Hill Country, once seen as winningly authentic, were now attacked as boorish. His heedlessness of limits, recently praised for fueling his Great Society ambitions, was now deemed to be dangerously narcissistic. The more his war policy lost favor, the more his press relations were criticized.

In particular, Johnson’s deceptions and lack of candor—and the secrecy and dishonesty from the Pentagon—sparked hostility. The so-called credibility gap plagued him for the rest of his tenure. Even though some of Johnson’s untruths were simply the embellishments endemic to political life, especially in places like the hammy Texas milieu from which he hailed, he was held to ever-stricter standards. Statements that would previously have been forgiven as routine fibs, exaggerations, or human inconsistency were now subjected to unsparing scrutiny. (When Johnson bragged that his great-great-grandfather had died at the Alamo, reporters checked his story and found it wanting—one more exhibit in the case for LBJ’s dishonesty.) Reston now pronounced LBJ a failure in his press relations. “There is more troubled questioning of the veracity of statements out of the White House today,” he wrote in 1966, “than at any time in recent memory.”

Johnson cycled through one press secretary after another. He curtailed his interactions with journalists, turning nasty and punitive. To arrest his plunge, White House aides convened a series of interagency groups, populated by top flacks from various departments and bureaus, designed to coordinate the administration’s war messages. In August 1967, the latest such body, the Vietnam Information Group, launched its “Progress Campaign,” designed to prove that America was on the verge of winning in Indochina. A compliant president gave rounds of interviews to prominent journalists and hosted small groups for drinks and hors d’oeuvres at the White House. The blitz continued through the fall; it even registered small gains for Johnson in the polls. But they were dashed the next January after the Tet Offensive, the stunning Pyrrhic victory by North Vietnamese forces on the lunar new year holiday. The Progress Campaign was no substitute for actual progress.

 

When Barack Obama became president, his campaign staff imagined that the talents in rhetoric and messaging he had shown as a candidate would help him deliver transformative change. “I don’t think there’s been a president since Kennedy whose ability to move issues and people through a speech has been comparable,” David Axelrod declared. There was much talk about Lincoln, FDR, and JFK, but the problems that onetime media maestros such as Hoover and Johnson faced in transmuting their campaign-trail magic into White House mojo didn’t seem to get much thought.

Obama’s reversal of fortune began early. He enjoyed an expected honeymoon, but soon he was being subjected to the same suspicion and scrutiny that all of his immediate predecessors faced. Economic conditions, of course, were terrible. Americans were reeling from the fall’s financial collapse and expected their new president to fix things—quickly. It didn’t help that big business and the banks bounced back fairly rapidly, notching record profits and doling out fat bonuses, leaving the impression that everyone else had been left behind. Obama’s popularity, tethered to the fate of the middle class, sagged.

Compounding his troubles, a united Republican party fought Obama ruthlessly as he labored to pass a stimulus bill and otherwise clean up the mess. In the face of their truculence, his lofty words and social-media savvy were relatively meaningless. Obama also lacked the temperament of a fighter or the skills of an experienced Washington wheeler-dealer, and he never found ways to force the Republicans to bend to his will or coax them into win-win compromises.

Even in his first year, then, the man who had rocketed to power on the strength of his communication skills heard the peculiar criticism that he was a poor communicator. As it had been for Hoover and Johnson and others, this new image was a function not of poor salesmanship but of his actual struggles to solve the intractable problems before him. Thus, Obama, too, saw attributes that had once been described positively morph into their photographic negatives. His coolness under pressure came to be seen as a debilitating lack of passion. His self-possession came across as cockiness. His ability to inspire with grand rhetoric was now understood as the flip side of a plodding manner when discussing policy.

The inability of spin to solve tough problems became evident during Obama’s fight to pass his health care reform bill. Although his eventual triumph will remain a big bullet point on his résumé, the process of securing it was ugly. At many points along the way—and still to this day—the plan lacked majority support; more than once it nearly died. When it eventually passed, most analysts agree, it was because of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s hardnosed legislative wrangling, not because the president engineered an outpouring of public support.

Throughout the process, Obama’s salesmanship consistently fell short—enshrining the false narrative that his troubles stemmed from style, not substance. One source of puzzlement was the collapse of his vaunted social media machine. During the campaign it had seemed to magically unleash the energies of legions of young enthusiasts, amassing 13 million supporters’ email addresses in its databanks that it could contact directly, without interference from pesky journalists. In 2008 press aide Dan Pfeiffer had even teased reporters that they would be rendered useless once Obama, as president, began disseminating messages via the internet. On taking office, Obama signaled that he would use the internet to his advantage by appointing a thirty-year-old “new media director,” introducing a Twitter feed, and hiring a videographer whose segments were uploaded to YouTube and the White House website.

Those steps, though, did little to sell the health care bill or, for that matter, subsequent policies. In the summer of 2009, it wasn’t young Obamaphiles who turned out in force, but older, conservative voters—many of whom had health insurance and feared any overhaul. When Sarah Palin spoke about the plan’s “death panels” (an absurd distortion of the technocratic mechanisms for assessing the costs of end-of-life care), the White House threw up a “reality check” website, which Axelrod announced with an email blast to supporters. But while journalists aggressively debunked the right’s misinformation, few minds were changed. Obama also tried to regain the initiative with a much-heralded speech to Congress in September 2009. It drew 32 million viewers and good reviews. But when the Tea Party descended on Washington days later, the speech turned out to be a dead letter. The White House was learning anew that it’s easier to whip up opposition than to lock down support; similar headwinds had helped wreck Bill Clinton’s health care reform sixteen years earlier.

Still, Obama and his team stuck with their strategy of trying to go around the mainstream media. By his second term, the White House had created its own news service, digitally transmitting a stream of photos, videos, blog posts, and interviews to social media sites visited by his devotees. (The White House staff was almost certainly unaware of Hoover’s experiment with a government newspaper or similar efforts by other presidents—probably because they were so ineffectual.) But if the unfiltered messaging helped the White House with some short-term battles—Politico noted that in Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan’s confirmation fight, she gave precisely one interview, which was to “White House TV”—they were mostly preaching to the converted. For an election campaign premised on getting out the vote, bombarding the faithful with propaganda made sense; for convincing uncertain citizens and legislators to adopt a new policy position, it was largely pointless.

The internet-based communication strategy also disappointed the Obama team because the new media environment posed many unforeseen challenges. While the rise of partisan media and the spread of social media offered the White House certain advantages in disseminating its message, the sheer proliferation of news outlets also meant that simply getting the public’s attention was now harder than ever. From Dwight Eisenhower to George Bush, Sr., presidents could schedule a prime-time Oval Office speech and commandeer the big three networks. Now, those speeches were often shunted to cable. Audiences for newspapers and the nightly news broadcasts also shrank. Meanwhile, the twenty-four-hour news cycle became an unending one, with reporters updating their stories and pundits sounding off all day long, forcing the White House to keep pace.

To address this problem, the Obama administration redoubled its efforts to keep the spotlight on the president. At the start of his presidency, he made regular rounds of news and entertainment programs, from late-night comedy broadcasts to the full slate of Sunday morning shows. “Obama the Omnipresent,” said the New York Times; Jennifer Senior of New York magazine detailed his “full-saturation approach.”

But this saturation strategy raised concerns about overexposure and a cheapening of the presidential word. In time the White House reversed course completely, cutting back on photo ops, question-and-answer sessions, and interviews. That shift in turn provoked charges that Obama was unduly stingy with information. That neither a media policy of feast nor famine had any discernible effect on the president’s fortunes should have tipped off the administration’s spinmeisters that the answers to their troubles didn’t lie in how well they calibrated his interviews with David Brooks or his appearances on “The View.” It went deeper.

Most confounding of all to the White House was the ability of conservative media, led by Fox News and talk radio, to set the agenda. It was hard enough that Obama lacked a unified audience; worse, this new media landscape brimmed with partisan voices on cable, radio, social media, and in the blogosphere. These outlets mainly confirmed their audiences’ pre-existing beliefs. Faced with strong counternarratives from the right, the White House found it hard to win over the public with its own images, now matter how professionally produced and disseminated.

At times Obama conceded that the talents that helped him win the presidency were no substitute for a different set of abilities—hard-headed negotiation, innovative policymaking, creativity with executive power—that might have softened or surmounted the opposition’s obstructionism. “This country doesn’t just agree with the New York Times editorial page,” he said in 2010. “And, you know, I can make some really good arguments defending the Democratic position and there are going to be some people who just don’t agree with me.” Here, Obama grasped that he hadn’t really lost his ability to make good arguments. The problem was that the challenges of the times called for something more.

The hope that better communication might have rescued Obama’s presidency was always an expression of wishful thinking—made stronger because his initial promise, from his 2004 debut at the Democratic convention to his 2008 Philadelphia speech on race, rested so heavily on his communicative skills. To be sure, Obama won’t be remembered like Hoover as a disaster, and even if he can’t match Johnson’s domestic policy achievements, neither has he presided over a Vietnam. But it’s impossible to deny that Obama’s presidency has been a troubled time for most Americans. It took many years for the recovery to reach the middle class (real median household income at first fell and then only inched up under Obama, whereas under the Reagan and Clinton recoveries it had climbed noticeably). And when unemployment finally did drop, a series of major international crises—including Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and the rise of ISIS—cast the wisdom of the president’s foreign policy into serious doubt. White House officials and loyal partisans had trouble understanding why the public didn’t appreciate the economic recovery, or other new laws that Obama put in place, and concluded that the Republicans had won on spin. But the truth was more pedestrian.

To admit to Obama’s mixed record in governing is not to deny him his due. He inherited a mess at home and abroad, and it was his thankless lot as president to clean it up. Although it’s easy to imagine a more experienced and skilled president having fared somewhat better, it’s also easy to imagine a more inept president having made things much worse. As we assess his strengths and weaknesses, and begin situating his presidency in the sweep of history, we should be careful not to take refuge in the comforting fallacy that his failings were nothing more than the result of bad spin.


David Greenberg, a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, is a longtime contributor to Dissent. He is the author of Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency, forthcoming from W.W. Norton in January 2016.



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