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Is progressive messaging a massive botch?

By Joe Romm on February 8, 2010 at 12:58 pm

"Is progressive messaging a massive botch?"

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Part 4: What went wrong in the Obama White House?

“Historians will puzzle over the fact that Barack Obama, the best communicator of his generation, totally lost control of the narrative in his first year in office and allowed people to view something they had voted for as something they suddenly didn’t want,” says Jim Morone, America’s leading political scientist on healthcare reform. “Communication was the one thing everyone thought Obama would be able to master.”

So writes Financial Times Washington Bureau Chief Edward Luce.

I’m doing a multipart series on progressive messaging, since the failure of that messaging is the second-most important reason we are not going to get a strong enough climate bill this year (assuming the conventional wisdom is wrong and we get one at all).  Of course, the most important reason, by far, remains the self-destructive demagoguing and obstinacy of anti-science, pro-polluter ideologues.

The failure to advance a narrative (frame or extended metaphor) has been a disaster (see Part 1 and Part 2).  It’s worth understanding why that happened.

According to Steve Clemons writing in TPM, Core Chicago Team Sinking Obama Presidencym,” this Luce piece is the definitive analysis of what went wrong in the WH:

It’s a vital article — a brave one — that includes “dozens of interviews with his closest allies and friends in Washington.”

Most are unnamed because the consequences of retribution from this powerful foursome can be severe in an access-dependent town. John Podesta, president of the powerful, administration-tilting Center for American Progress, had the temerity and self-confidence to put his thoughts publicly on the record.

Note to Clemons/TPM:  CAP isn’t “administration-tilting.”  CAP is progressive-tilting and if other folks start tilting in CAP’s direction, well, I suppose, that makes it doubly look like we’re tilting toward them.  Most of the media, however, typically call CAP “left-leaning” or something like that.

John Podesta, a former chief of staff to Bill Clinton and founder of the Center for American Progress, the most influential think-tank in Mr Obama’s Washington, says that while he believes Mr Obama does hear a range of views, including dissenting advice, problems can arise from the narrow composition of the group itself….

“Clearly this kind of core management approach worked for the election campaign and President Obama has extended it to the White House,” says Mr Podesta, who managed Mr Obama’s widely praised post-election transition. “It is a very tight inner circle and that has its advantages. But I would like to see the president make more use of other people in his administration, particularly his cabinet.”

I can’t imagine a successful organization or messaging operation that is so insular as the WH appears to be.

Winning efforts need a lot of feedback as quickly as possible since the world and especially the political world simply change too fast and are too complex to operate successfully as a closed system.  I thought that was well understood, but apparently not, so I may do a blog post on it later, since I have written about that a great deal in earlier books of mine.

For now, if you want some of the best analysis of how the WH has mismanaged itself into this mess, start with Clemons and Luce.

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15 Responses to Is progressive messaging a massive botch?

  1. john atcheson says:

    I’m glad you took up the Luce article — it is the most important and enlightening critique of the Administration out there.

    But it is not only the insularity of the administration that has made it so completely inept at messaging, it is the nature of the few with access. When your advisors are Rahm Emanuel, a man of unlimited ego but limited talent; Lawrence Summers, a man of prodigious intellect who has nevertheless been wrong on most of the big issues; and Axelrod, a man who has almost no experience at governance, how can your message be right or effective?

    It’s not just the closed access, it’s the nature of those with access — it’s a deadly brew.

  2. Sonia Crowell says:

    Control freaks starting with Rahm. These are nasty people and use bully tactics.

  3. Bill Waterhouse says:

    Almost on-topic. Part of Obama’s problem is the poor media coverage of anything complicated. Case in point:Just watched the NBC-owned Weather Channel do a short report on the following article:

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/02/100205130226.htm

    They only reported the finding that PAST glacier melting had been over estimated. They failed to report that current melting was more rapid and increasing, as stated in the last sentence of the article.

    But have to wonder why Science Daily didn’t put that critical fact up front in the article?  Sigh.

    Bill Waterhouse

    by iPod

  4. Doug Bostrom says:

    Bill Waterhouse says: February 8, 2010 at 2:17 pm

    “Almost on-topic. Part of Obama’s problem is the poor media coverage of anything complicated.”

    Straight on topic. Any description of Obama’s first year in office that does not take account of the extraordinary and historically unprecedented campaign of deception mounted around health care is incomplete. That was only possible because the media abjectly failed in doing a reasonable job of fact checking even in those cases where they were not feeding gasoline into a fire of misinformation.

    Anybody here attend local meetings with legislators last year? I did and the ugly shift in tone was absolutely flabbergasting. I’ve never seen anything like it, a monument to what money can buy in a market where citizens lack critical thinking skills. Even lacking those skills, most of the angry people shouting at those meetings would not have been stuffed with synthetic vitriol, if news outlets had been on the ball.

    Leaving aside media coverage, I think the administration’s main actual problem over the past year has been their failure to credit or heed something Paul Krugman spoke of years ago.

    The forces arrayed in opposition to citizen power, what we call government, are deadly serious; when the Club for Growth speaks of starving government, destroying it, they are not simply making a rhetorical flourish, they mean it. They are exemplary of the people running the opposition to Obama and crew, who do not seem to understand that our system works only on the principal of good faith. American government cannot withstand an uncountered insurgency of people who have no faith in the American way. Our system is not really robust against determined attack from within by people who do not believe in its tenets.

    I’m looking forward to what appears to be the emergence of a calculated form of political jujitsu from Obama. He’s invited the Republicans to engage in a televised discussion of health care reform and based on last week’s results with the GOP banging heads with the Prez this should be very interesting indeed.

  5. lgcarey says:

    I agree with Doug Bostrom. Democracy requires a widespread good faith belief in the basic system – in contrast to what seems to be an unsettlingly commonly voiced view that seems to run something like: “the election of Bush with a minority of the popular vote represented a mandate and evidence of democracy at work; the election of Obama by the largest majority in years represents an illegitimate communist plot that is subverting our country and must be resisted by whatever means necessary”. Our system of governance was not built to withstand a large number of people adopting the view that democracy is working only when their candidate wins, and that electoral victory by the opposition is not legitimate.

  6. Leif says:

    Doug Bostrom, #4: Very nice insights into the apparently intractable mess.
    So the other day we were discussing corporations having a mandate to lie to the public about AGW because it is the “most cost effective” approach to quarterly profits for the share holders. Humanity? Someone else’s problem.
    Doug, today you point out that America is not designed to withstand a determined insurgency. For the most part the troops of the “insurgency” are the folks that rap themselves in the cloak Patriotism.

    Are not “insurgents” in some other locations also called terrorist? Those who are actively trying to overthrow the duly elected government with lies and innuendo. Targeting the poor and uneducated as their unpaid cannon fodder.

    It is all very strange at times.

  7. How does Self gratification relate to fighting global warming?

    I just finished reading a detailed, multi year study: The Neural Basis for Self-Control, by Antonio Rangel, PhD, associate professor of economics at the highly regarded California Institute of Technology – Caltech. It tries to answer the following :
    “You’re on a diet, but you really want a piece of chocolate cake. What’s going on in your brain as you struggle to resist temptation?” [Caltech, Engineering & Science, Fall 2009]

    We are talking here about basic research of brain functions, finding specific zones in the brain involved in different aspects of the decision-making process and the differences in the brains of people that have self-control and those who do not.

    I studied this report in detail to try to see if we can relate the findings in this research to the global warming problem: to see if we can project from this study of self-control and answer the following question:
    What could be the basic difference between people who accept the reality of global warming and the urgent need to fight it, and people who reject the existence of GW or unwilling to fight against it.

    I see a considerable similarity, because both areas are involved with a person’s ability to grasp the difference between short term desire, and long term implications. Let me explain:

    The Caltech study indicates that there are at least two different locations in the brain that are involved in the decision making- eat the cake or deny it because of long term health impacts. One area of the brain is involved with the short term decision, and “sees” only signals of immediate desire: I want that piece of cake.
    Another area of the brain is involved in the long term impact, which is the eventual negative health impacts of eating the cake.
    In people that have little self-control only the first area of the brain is active – the desire for the cake is very pronounced in the brain. However, in people with self control, their second brain area is also active and overcomes the “desire” of the first brain area of immediate gratification- eat the cake. That second “control” brain area stops us from reaching for the cake.

    There are at least two other important aspects of this study:
    1. In general people with lower IQ’s are more likely to have brain activities in only the first area of the brain- the one responsible for immediate satisfaction. The other, controlling, brain area is not too active.
    2. People with strong self gratification (low self-control) are also inclined to be more emotional and have other aspects of less self control.

    I do not believe that this type of brain activity is limited to food.

    Here are some possible implications to global warming:

    1. Many people who reject GW may have this attitude because of their specific brain activity. They may have more activity in the “first area” of the brain – the low self-control area, the immediate gratification area. And they have limited activity in the second, “control” area. Which means, they want to continue to have their “cake”- the current wasteful energy ways, and are less able to grasp the long term implications of global warming- the “health of the Globe” implications.

    I am not ignoring here the legitimate concern of people for their immediate needs: food, shelter, jobs, security. But we must work to achieve both current basic needs and long term human survival. For many years we ignore the later and did nothing of value to date. We ignore the near future at our peril!

    2. People who are easily driven to anger by zealot deniers of GW, like Rush Limbaugh, may have the same brain activity of people with low self-control: they have limited long term brain sensitivity.

    And here is an even more significant aspect of these less self-control characteristics:
    These GW deniers, these easily angered people are considerably more effective politically than the more easy-going, more “mellowed” “liberals” who believe in GW. These deniers make a lot of public noise, way out of proportion to their numbers because they are angry and that motivate them to action.

    On the other hand, most ”liberals,” by their nature are not motivated to move, to take any political action. In effect, they are not helping the fight against global warming because they feel good for being on the “correct side” of the issue, and therefore are satisfied being “right.”.

    Again- most “moderate” people are often ineffective politically because they are “nice” people.
    That may be one of the main reasons why despite the fact that the majority of the voting public believes that global warming is real, very little is done politically. These “good” people have limited anger, minimal action, and thus they have limited voice.
    My staff and I have witness this inaction for many years in thousands of good people when we worked for social change in several states.

    The above brain limitations probably does not apply to political leaders on the Right, most Republicans and conservative Democrats, they understand the reality of GW, they are bright and their brain is well developed. But their brains and personalities have developed to distort facts for their own end game, their political goal – destroy the Democratic agenda, destroy the Democratic president. Any common sense of these conservatives is overcome by their zeal to destroy- they are unable to realize that their conduct is deeply damaging their own country, and are hurting also the people they are suppose to represent.

  8. mike roddy says:

    Well said, John Atcheson, #1. Emanuel, Axelrod, and Summers are all good at ruthless bureaucratic infighting and cynical political manipulation. Unfortunately, they seem to have little passion for the people, or the future of sentient life, so their messaging (like Hillary’s Penn) will always sound phony. As for Obama, he’s finding that the election soundbite cliches (“change”?) are starting to sound hollow.

    The inner leadership needs a shakeup, and should be replaced with people who believe in what they are doing, and are willing to fight for it. He should ditch Gates and Geithner, too. The president will have to butt heads with banks and fossil fuel companies anyway, so he might as well do it more publicly, and back it with action. When the Republican spin machine kicks in, they will fall into his trap.

    The Democrats’ message is too powerful to waste. Just like the deniers, the Republicans lie at every opportunity about climate change, and should be called to task for it repeatedly. The positive message should focus on the vast difference between the number of jobs that clean energy would create compared to the very low number of people required to dig up and burn fossil fuels. Obama’s mentioned this, but not enough, and not with enough passion- he sounds professorial on the subject.

    The money for clean energy and consequent national renewal is going to have to come from major cutbacks in the defense budget, including accelerated withdrawls from the Middle East and Asia. Even a lot of Republicans like Ron Paul have figured that one out, and it will be a big political winner.

    I think that the President is far more idealistic than his inner circle, in spite of his errors. That’s why we elected him, and why that person needs to return. These are scary times, and he needs to rise to the occasion.

    Final recommendation: I like Chu, but Joe Romm for Energy Secretary.

  9. espiritwater says:

    #7 (Dr. Ginosar), I don’t believe your theory. Females are generally more emotional than men. That doesn’t mean they’re less intelligent or can’t reason. It simply means that emotions are uppermost and reason is suppressed. Men are generally more reasonable with suppressed emotions. Furthermore, I know of people with very high IQ who have very little self control in some areas of their life and yet are very self controlled in other areas.

  10. #9. espritwater, at the very least your statement that “Females are generally more emotional than men” is poorly expressed, if not downright absurd. The closest I can come to a charitable interpretation of that assertion is that you have completely mistaken the modalities of expressing emotion with whether or not one is being “emotional.”

    Given, in addition, that it is the male dominated and institutionalized forms of description that declare which activity &/or modality is “emotional” and which is purely “reasonable” from which you are drawing the criteria you use to make your assertion, your assertion becomes multiply dubious, as it is all but (if not simply) overtly circular in using its self-declared criteria to demonstrate the universality of its self-declared criteria.

  11. David B. Benson says:

    Yes, and the messaging about climate doesn’t seem to me to be faring any better.

    Too many of the ignoranti.

  12. espiritwater says:

    –From Logic Deferred–9. espritwater, at the very least your statement that “Females are generally more emotional than men” is poorly expressed, if not downright absurd. The closest I can come to a charitable interpretation of that assertion is that you have completely mistaken the modalities of expressing emotion with whether or not one is being “emotional.”

    –To Logic Deferred–
    When you see someone screaming, yelling and raving, what do you say, “wow, she’s really in an emotional mode?” No. You say, “damn, she’s really emotional. And who is it that generally does all the ranting, yelling, and screaming? Women. Women are generally more emotional than men

    (Your comment was lacking in depth and emotion. A well written paper contains both reason and emotion. Yours was sorely lacking– too stuffy, dry and very condescending!)

    ———————

  13. Ronald says:

    We don’t have to over think the reasons of what and why people believe what they believe.

    If someone doesn’t understand something, they will generally believe what makes them feel good or better.

    For many Conservatives, Libertarians, Republicans and stakeholders in carbon fuels, believing their side to be right feels better.

    Humans are much of the time pack animals and have pack thinking.

  14. I believe Obama’s biggest mistake is his desire to incorporate Republicans into his governance. He must think that is what the public wants as well. That is his error; the public wants to be led by a powerful president who will, abetted by his party, get things done. Obama rarely attacks the Republican false ideas and political nonsense enough or consistently, apparently because he still hopes they will come around and help him! Of course, they have not and will not! The Republicans, every one, want to defeat him and they understand power much better than the Democrats do. Obama has the majority votes and must learn to act like it. Force the Republicans to filibuster and then attack them for that, over and over again. Proclaim to the heavens that the Republicans are un-American, destroying our democracy, preventing the proper governance of our nation because of their false ideologies and desire for power.

  15. Aunty Nucleer says:

    The problem is that Americans are far from unified that climate is a problem they need to solve.

    You can unbotch your messaging all you want and you will still face this brick wall. At some point the truth will sink in. I tend to believe it will take a continent sized undeniable event like the US Southwest becoming as arid as the Sahara before we see the unity that is required for adequate action, but it is clear that this unity is not here now.

    Still, it would help if the Democratic Party took a more comprehensible position.

    Consider the tritium leak at Vermont Yankee. The forces who want to make a big deal out of this want to shut down 70% of the low carbon electricity supply in the US.

    Imagine you are a Republican. You know the Democratic Party and the “progressive” movement is full of anti nukes who want the reactors shut down. Yet these same people tell you that you are the “anti science” and “pro polluter” guy, because you don’t see the urgency of the climate problem.

    Shutting down 70% of the low carbon electricity supply in the US when the scientists are telling us to decarbonize the entire world economy as soon as possible is “pro science”? Forcing the US into an even greater reliance on coal for baseload isn’t “pro polluter”?

    One flight to Copenhagen would expose someone to the extra radiation they would get if they drank the tritium water from the most contaminated test well at Vermont Yankee as their only source of fluid for 23 days.

    Climate can’t be as urgent as “progressives” and the Democratic Party leadership say it is, our hypothetical Republican thinks, otherwise they wouldn’t come on with such an inconsistent and ridiculous position.