- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 8, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

This is not a time to borrow and bend the title made legendary by one of my earliest fellow travelers and occasional mentors, Teddy White — because it is way too early to start talking about “The Unmaking of the President.”

But we know President Obama’s once-stratospheric public opinion ratings have plunged earthward. And we know one reason why: Neither the president nor his top strategists have been doing their best work lately on behalf of the Obama presidency. Surprisingly, they have been weakest in what was always Mr. Obama’s strongest attribute — creating and executing his political message strategy.

Decades of covering presidents and their ever-confident strategists have made clear what works wonderfully and what never works at all. Even the best communicators sooner or later lose control of their message. It happened to Ronald Reagan several times. The best have the ability and adaptability to regain the high ground. But those who wallow in denial end up tap-dancing in quicksand.

Today we are here to help the current president and his team — by offering some Golden Rules for Great Communicators:

(1) Don’t say things ordinary people instinctively know are untrue, unworkable or naive.

Example: Don’t insist in early summer that the House and Senate must enact health care reform before the August recess. Your brainstormers saw it as a brilliant inside maneuver — postpone tough deal-making until the autumn House-Senate conferences. But wait! Americans instinctively will see this as a reckless way to handle one-sixth of the economy. When critics blast you as irresponsible and naive, people will agree. You will needlessly lose support. And one more thing: It was never going to happen by August anyway.

(2) Don’t senselessly surrender control of your daily message strategy to the media.

Last Sunday your strategists outsmarted themselves. They merely wanted to communicate that the stimulus has begun helping the economy. But they dispatched Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers not to give speeches (where they control the topics) but to Sunday television interview shows. Predictably, journalists asked if they’ll rule out a middle-class tax increase to fund health reform amid soaring deficits.

Astoundingly, apparently no one briefed your messengers on the message-answer they must give: that the president ruled it out repeatedly during the 2008 campaign — and he’s keeping his promise. Result: You got blasted for two days on the nonstop cable news. And worse: now people aren’t sure whether to believe your press secretary’s belated denial or your top economists’ unpremeditated, separate answers that left all options open.

(3) Don’t squander your greatest leadership instrument — you — by overuse or overexposure.

Presidential appearances should always be special — never routine or humdrum. Especially town hall events and primetime news conferences should be scheduled for when you have news to tell. Yet you don’t seem to be trying to make news at your recent events. Indeed, the only news you made at your last primetime news conference was news you didn’t want to make — to that predictable question about the professor and the cop. You are at risk of being our greatest presidential communicator, yet having Americans respond to your next major message events by ho-humming and channel-surfing.

(4) Don’t permit political opponents to control the public definition of your issues.

Predictably, your opponents countered your health reform efforts with the same attacks they used to defeat health reform in the 1990s. Yet you’ve let them capture control by defining your program to America. Example: that Republican video-prop chart that pretended to show how Democratic reform will work.

That was the moment for you to regain your Great Communicator mojo — by calling a real presidential and populist news-making event: Invite Republicans to spend August not vacationing but meeting at the White House and Camp David. Tell them both sides must talk in good faith. To prove it, Republicans must tear up their Old Politics chart and Democrats will make a similar gesture.

Let both sides demonstrate to Americans that the era of misleading health reform gimmicks is gone — for good.

Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.

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