I’m noticing how both US President Barack Obama and Canadian Opposition Leader Michael Ignatieff are facing communications challenges these days. The tougher reality is that while advancing policy initiatives or rebuilding a brand are difficult to begin with, neither politician’s camp is helping their own cause.
Where to begin….
Barack Obama: US Health Care Reform
Many of you are probably aware that Barack Obama is having the carpet pulled out from under him regarding healthcare reform. Aggressive and vitriolic conservative propaganda (surely supported if not funded by the insurance companies who have plenty to lose) have begun convincing Americans that Obama’s plan is to “socialize” heath care, strip choice from each individual and raise taxes. In fact none of these arguments are true, but as much of a fan of his as I am, it must be said that he is doing an incredibly poor job of selling his argument. This is quite odd, given he is the president amongst presidents known for his communications skills, clarity and leveraging mass media techniques; yet his messages on health care reform have been cloudy, convoluted and confusing, easily suppressed and overtaken by a tack-sharp, straight-forward and succinct counter from the Republicans and special interest groups. It is not unexpected then, to witness the debate wandering away from Obama’s focused subject matter and rather alarmingly threatening his early success, approval ratings and possible legacy.
The Republican message has operated on these principles:
- Obama health care will limit the choices Americans have to receive excellent medical service
- In adding coverage for 50 million uninsured Americans, there is no way to pay for this reform other than to raise taxes
- Obama’s publicly funded health care plan is akin to socialism – socialized medicine strips Americans of their very civil liberties and freedom of choice
The Republicans are effectively selling their message point for point with the same predictable tact and efficiency that every American has become accustomed to. Unfortunately, the Democrats, despite holding the House, the Senate and the Presidency, are falling into the same trap of being self-effacing and clumsy. They fail to understand or be convinced of their own message, let alone sell it abroad.
All it would take for Obama to make his point and earn wide-spread support for his reform is to get down to the facts of the matter, clarify his message and essentially fight fire with fire. Steady messages should be forthright and even slightly aggressive:
- Every insured American is being ripped off by for-profit insurance companies
- Uninsured Americans are costing insured Americans even more because they lack coverage but still access medical care
- The government’s only control in this plan is to provide an all-access pass to health care – beyond that, every choice is up to the patient and their doctor
Heck, use keywords and marketing: recovery, solution, escape, relief, cure, freedom, democratic, constitutional… Know your audience. Know your media. Know your opponents. Clarify your message. Determine your talking points. Keep them simple. Keep everyone on message and honest. Defeat line by line your opponents’ arguments. Public relations 101.
Simple messages make for great headlines. Stop using confusing examples, big words and vague and obtrusive arguments. Say it like this: “America: each of you are spending more to receive less. You are being ripped off. I have the solution that will cost you less and get you more. I have a low-cost plan to cure America of its health care needs.” Enough said.
The Democrats have until now been convoluted and uninterpretable – to the extent that they’re tripping over themselves. In less than a week, press secretary Robert Biggs said one thing, which differed from House speaker Nancy Pelosi, which again differed from Obama himself. Seriously? Even supporters of the plan have developed a twitch. Regardless of the quality of the program, if you can’t get your facts straight, how can anyone trust you to deliver?
The fact of the matter is that when both sides of any argument are equally prepared and able to present their case, the more appreciable party or subject line should win every time. And this is what confounds me every time Republicans win anything. If Americans have been convinced to support Republicans on anything – from state propositions to presidents – it is because either a) the Republicans do a better job of selling their argument, or b) Americans actually choose the Republican message. I have a hard time believing the latter – that a majority of Americans are conservative. Sure there are certain states, but not the whole country. Thus, when they get spanked by someone like George W. Bush, the Democrats should take that as a literal slap in the face. It’s punishment for having incompetently presented a viable alternative.
Time and time again, we here in Canada have watched the Democrats defeat themselves by falling into Republican traps – whether it was the John Kerry Vietnam Swift Boat scandal (which was entirely irrelevant to the election, but deflected the argument away from Bush’s disastrous foreign policy, failed domestic programs and hugely wasteful spending) or this, Obama’s “Death Camp” health care reform. Frankly, the Republicans shouldn’t have a leg to stand on, but they seem to be immensely more talented, voracious, and skilled debaters. I can only imagine how refined they are behind the scenes at selling their points to the media and to interest groups.
Michael Ignatieff: His Brand And That Of His Party
The growing problem Canadian Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff is facing is emblematic of the American president’s. While a majority of Canadians support Ignatieff’s sound character and liberal ideology, his efforts to establish himself and garner support for his renewed party are starting to be deflected or otherwise contradicted by his opposition. Accordingly, Canadians are becoming confused by what is being presented to them.
In Ignatieff’s case, we’re talking about his image and reputation (his brand) and the legitimization of the revamped Liberal Party. The Liberals are for some reason or another allowing the governing Conservatives complete opportunity to pounce on their leader’s image and that of his party. Here we have a very capable person and party with moderate and responsible views, yet Conservative arguments reduce both Ignatieff and the Liberals down to staunch aristocratic attitudes and vague (and therefore untrustworthy) policies.
While it is to be expected that the Conservative attack plan would be to strike fear into people thinking of voting Liberal, what is odd is that the Liberals themselves are doing little to counter the argument. And as long as the debate lingers, voters start to legitimize and rationalize Conservative attacks. The portrayals begin to stick. This is what makes otherwise unappetizing attack ads successful: they hold no bearing unless the receiving party does nothing to refute them. If an attack remains undefended, even on grounds of legitimacy, at least some of the intended damage is done. Thus, when an election comes around, the argument becomes, for example, less about recession spending, employment insurance and corporate tax breaks, and more about rebuking the caricature the Conservatives have created regarding Ignatieff.
Because conservatives (Republicans) operate from a “status quo” platform and liberals (or Democrats) operate from an “ideas” platform, the conservatives have a distinct advantage when discussing policy or change, because their argument is “why.” To their advantage is the familiar. While liberals must argue why change is good or necessary, all conservatives have to do is refer to what is known and what is working. When that isn’t enough, they escalate to why liberal ideas won’t work as promised or aren’t sound or sufficient in the first place. Inherently, the foundation of conservative thinking is lowest-common-denominator and status quo. By their nature they are satisfied with less – less control, less change, less interference. Liberal thinking is about progression, change and development. Therefore, the natural conservative response to a liberal plan exudes a fear of the unknown. And they prey upon these subconscious characteristics in every voter.
What both Michael Ignatieff and Barack Obama would benefit from immediately, is getting back down to basics with voters. They ought to clarify their message, deflect any unnecessary tangents and define the arguments that will achieve success. Now that both men have traveled a fair distance down a road of disrepair (thanks to their opposition), they need to take the extra steps of bringing their voter base back to an open-minded equilibrium. This might mean direct contact – town halls – since speaking to people are strengths of both men. Obama is already doing this to a limited extent, but I’m talking campaign-style and in hostile territory. They need to get their message across (unadulterated) and generate two-way conversations with voters. Hear what they have to say. This will get people talking about them and telling their friends about them.
Once they’re back on a level playing field with voters, all it really comes down to is ensuring their arguments make sense, are succinct and satisfy a need. Reality and the common voter favor moderate and centrist politicians. Only in allowing the debate to shift away from legitimate topics can conservative groups win, yet it happens far more often than it should.