Team Obama has a big problem on its hands. The White House has lost control of the press narrative. No single news cycle can make or break a president’s momentum. But getting trapped under a damaging narrative can take weeks to shake off. The bad Obama narrative was summed up by Sen. Lindsey Graham today: “If this is the change we all can believe in, then Americans’ best days are behind them.”
Sen. Graham did more than coin the sound bite of the day—he put a frame around the problem facing the new president and his overconfident team. Their troubles seem to fall into three categories:
1. Hypocrisy: If you talk about change but your actions fail to live up to your message, then people stop believing that you’re different;
2. Sharp elbows: Nancy Pelosi will doom the White House legislative agenda with her hyper-partisanship and her self-obsessed, power-hungry ways;
3. Reality: The problems confronting America’s economy and security are complex, and the solutions are neither clear, nor politically popular.
During the campaign, Barack Obama’s simple and tough messages helped him win more than the majority of news cycles. The Obama campaign sold a narrative to the media that those of us on the other side could never counter with a narrative of equal weight or appeal. Obama was the candidate of change, and Sen. McCain represented more of the same. Obama was the guy who was going to clean up Washington and we were the campaign of Washington insiders. Obama was going to end the bitter partisanship that has marked the past decade, and we represented “old Washington.” Obama’s damaging narratives didn’t always match reality, but it didn’t matter. We never managed to successfully rebut or refute any of these narratives, and they contributed to our loss last November.
The White House is now learning an important lesson about how hard it is to regain control of the narrative once it has been lost. But, surprisingly, they don’t seem to be doing much to dig themselves out.
The White House is now learning an important lesson about how hard it is to regain control of the narrative once it has been lost. But, surprisingly, they don’t seem to be doing much to dig themselves out. They seem to believe that once the stimulus bill passes, they will control the narrative again. But that is not the case. The only way to regain control of the narrative is for Obama to do what he did during the campaign—position himself as the outsider, a “once in a generation leader” who will stand alone, if he has to, and fight for the American people.
Obama can regain control of the narrative if he takes control of the stimulus debate and broadens the discussion as he always did so brilliantly during the campaign. Instead of getting stuck in a “death-by-a-thousand-cuts” legislative back and forth with many members of his own party, he should hit the road and talk to people about his targeted efforts to fix every aspect of our sick economy. He should have an “American President” moment and tell voters that he’s scrapping the current stimulus bill because it has little chance of actually stimulating the economy. It’s a dud. House Democrats managed to create bipartisan opposition to the bill with their partisanship and spending excesses. Obama should form bipartisan working groups to craft separate packages to stimulate the economy, add jobs, protect the most vulnerable members of our society, and propose long-term infrastructure and innovation programs. Obama could appoint bipartisan leaders of each working group to make sure that Democrats and Republicans are invested in the proposed solutions from the beginning instead of gathering in their own corners and then meeting in the center ring to do battle.
The mistake that the Obama White House is making is its failure to be bold enough. It was President Obama who warned against childish things, and it is President Obama who is now suffering from Democrats’ childish tactics. President George W. Bush suffered in his efforts to reform immigration and Social Security when he was unable to persuade his own party to reject its small, petty instincts and sacrifice for the greater good. Obama can learn lessons from his predecessor’s failures and come out stronger if he stands up to congressional Democrats and demands an end to politics as usual. Until then, Republicans will enjoy the upper hand and the high road in the debate about how best to protect the taxpayer and strengthen our ailing economy.
Nicolle Wallace was senior adviser to the McCain-Palin campaign from May to November 2008. She served President George W. Bush as an assistant to the president, director of communications for the White House, as well as communications director for President Bush's 2004 campaign.