Defining Obama: Presidential image and narrative in the 2012 elections


In so many ways it may already be too late for President Obama. It may be too late for him to construct an alternative narrative about his successes and accomplishments that he can use on the campaign trail to support his re-election. For many Americans, the narratives have already stuck that his presidency and policies are a failure.

Two rules that every successful presidential candidate remembers are that “politics is like selling beer” and that “define or be defined.” The first rule refers to the power of political narratives, the second to the constructing your own image–creating an image–or having someone else do it for you. Both of these are rule about constructively using the media–generally in an aggressive and proactive way to do messaging.

This blog has repeatedly discussed the power of political narratives. Candidates need a compelling narrative that describes who they are, their vision for the future, what they want their presidency to look like. The narrative is their reason for running for office (“I am running for president because…”) and the direction they want to take their presidency and the American public. George W. Bush was chided for lacking that “vision thing” and rightly so, but he still won in 1988 for other reasons (see below).

The way of persuasion is about having a narrative. We tell stories about ourselves when job hunting (the cover letter and resume), we tell stories to do fund raising (“Send money to feed the homeless”), and businesses sell products by telling stories (“Drink this soda and you too will be cool.”). It is less reason and facts that move people than it is narratives, with the best one being about the future, that are optimistic, and which inspire passion.

The great narratives of our time were Ronald Reagan’s “It’s morning in America” and Bill Clinton’s appropriation of Fleetwood Mack’s Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.” Both were brilliant narratives about hope and the future. They were narratives that promised a better tomorrow; they appealed to America’s sense of progress, optimism, and that the future will be better than the past. Perhaps one of the most famous lines in movie history–Scarlet O’Hara’s “Tomorrow is another day” from Gone with the Wind captures the compelling nature of this American belief in a better future.

The 2008 presidential race witnessed dueling narratives of John McCain and Barack Obama. McCain’s narrative spoke of the world being a dangerous place and that we should not trust enemies. He touted his military experience to keep us safe and he sought to get America forget that he was a Republican wanting to the keep the White House in his party’s hands after a failed eight years under George Bush. McCain’s narrative sought to channel the Reagan brand one more time but it failed. It failed to an Obama narrative of change. A narrative of hope for the future, of an appeal to a new generation wanting their turn at power. Obama simply had a great narrative. He also had the fortune of a collapsing economy that worked to his favor, and a Republican vice-presidential candidate in Sarah Palin who few thought was qualified to be president in the event of McCain’s death.

But beyond the narrative, Obama also understood the power of define or be defined. In politics, you need to define who you and your opponents are before they do that to you. Remember the famous 1990 Andre Agassi Canon commercial–“Image is Everything”–that captures the point here.

Image construction is important to politics, especially if you can do it to your opponents. On Labor Day 1988 Michael Dukakis had a 18 point lead over George Bush. Bush used Willie Horton, references to the ACLU, and stories about the Massachusetts’ governor not wanting to kill someone who hypothetically raped his wife to cast him as a pinko who was soft on crime. Bush went to win the presidency by three points.

In 1992 when allegations of marital infidelity nearly wrecked Bill Clinton’s campaign his staff used the latest technology of the day–the fax machine–to proactively counter stories. Finally, in 2004, the Bush campaign brilliantly defined John Kerry as an elitist coward who purposively injured himself three times to get out of Vietnam early. The genius in transforming a three-time Purple Heart winner into a coward was amazing; thus the power of narratives.

Again in 2008 Obama understood the charm of definition. He defined himself as the candidate of hope and change, of McCain the candidate of the old an stodgy, and he also successfully declared Ronald Reagan and his narrative to be dead. Obama brought narrative and definition together to create an amazing campaign story about himself and his opponents.

But the brilliance of 2008 rapidly faded. All that was done so well in 2008 failed Obama and the Democrats in 2010. They lost the narrative and definition. Palin mocked Obama by asking how we liked the “hopey-changey stuff?” The Republicans tied TARP to Obama and not Bush. They decried that the stimulus bill was a failure (even though it did work but was insufficient to address the real depth of recession the economy was in), and they questioned his competence and leadership. All of this has stuck. In part it stuck because there was some truth to many of the accusations, but still the Republicans were lethal after being trounced in 2008. They went on the attack from January 20, 2009 and redefined Obama as a failure.

Now think about where Obama is at as 2012 is about to begin. Obama’s successes are defined as failures. The stimulus did help, TARP made money (Yes it was a Bush program), and he did deliver on many other promises. Health care reform is decried as Obamacare and bank regulation as killing the economy. Obama’s narrative of change has degenerated into “It could have been worse” as described so many times in this blog. Obama still lacks a narrative and worse, he is defined as a failure and as unable to rescue the economy. Again, there is much evidence that this is accurate, but even if not, Obama has been defined by a narrative that he cannot escape. Obama needs to escape the economy and run against a do-nothing unpopular Congress. He needs to cast himself as an economist populist th at fights for the other 99%. In short, Obama needs a complete makeover.

It will be hard to do this now that he has already been defined by the Republicans for the last four years. But even if not for the last four years, clearly in the last few months the Republican presidential debates have been influential in doing that. While Obama does his presidential thing, the GOP candidates debate and get press,. They get air time attacking the president and he does not respond. The candidates collectively have succeeded in crafting an image of Obama that has stuck. While four years ago content analysis of media coverage of Obama demonstrated overwhelming positive images, were a similar study done today the hypotheses today would be of just the opposite–overwhelming images. Obama has been defined–his narrative for him written by his opponents.

Obama at least has one advantage–the image and narrative for his Republican opponents is being written and it is a negative one. Palin never had a chance to run for the presidency with over 60% of the public thought her too dumb or unqualified to be president. Now think about the other Republican contenders–Romney as a boring multiple choice Mick–Bachmann as a religious zealot–Perry as a lightweight cowboy–Cain as a lightweight sexual predator–and Gingrich as a cranky, adulterer, arrogant, hypocrite. These are largely self-defined images reenforced by the media. Hardly the images that are winning presidential formulae.

As the Iowa caucuses loom it will be telling to see how Obama tries to remake his image and narrative. Again, it may be too late to do that but with the narratives and images of his opponents equally dismal Obama might be able to pull off a second term with a slogan reminiscent of we chanted when Richard Nixon was running for a second term: “Don’t change dicks in the middle of a screw, vote for Nixon in 72.” Better the devil we know than the one we do not. That may be Obama’s best hope for a narrative.

Bonus quiz and word association time: When I mention Obama or any of the GOP rivals to him, what words or images come to your mind? Let me know your suggestions.