Tuesday, October 13, 2009

It’s called Newton’s 3rd law, Mr. Obama!

This column was originally published in India in 4Ps B&M, one of that nation's most prestigious business and public relations magazines.

Ned Barnett is a Senior Political Media Analyst with experience of running media campaigns for former US Presidential candidates at state level. He writes exclusively for 4Ps B&M on why Obama’s PR campaign is backfiring...

America’s politicians are typically divided between two parties (there are other parties, but they seldom gain representation in Congress, and virtually never achieve real power, even in local or state elections); and typically, politicians “follow the party line.” However, because they are elected individually and are required to live in and come from the district they represent, they tend to oppose their own party when they fear for their own re-election. By pushing the American people so hard that they feel inclined to push back, the Obama administration has motivated hundreds of thousands of Americans to actually pay attention to politics, to get involved and to CARE.

During the Presidential campaign, Obama’s background as a “hardball” community organiser worked remarkably well – however, now that he’s governing, it is backfiring. Why? Because he seems to not be listening to Americans – and when Americans don’t feel that they’re being heard, they speak louder. Please remember, that in the US, the first element of the Bill of Rights allows us Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Assembly and the Right to Petition the Government for the Redress of Grievances. By not listening to people’s free speech and by ignoring their petition to redress grievances, the Obama administration is courting that backlash.

There is a group – once called “the Silent Majority” – of people who tend to not speak out. They often vote, but they don’t protest or demonstrate. They are used to doing things for themselves, and they are much more comfortable “writing a letter” to an elected official, or the local newspaper, than going out in public with their home-made signs. However, because of Obama’s community organising initiatives and his “Change” agenda during the campaign, they have found the courage to step out of their comfort zone and speak out in public. They are not career protesters or life-long political agitators-for-change – this is not their natural milieu, and because of that, they are more emotionally tied up in being heard (and much more prone to real, sustained anger when they’re not listened to).

I am not implying that America is on the verge of a real revolution (of the armed revolt kind), but please remember this from our history if we want to understand this backlash – that it was not the Stamp Act (taxation without representation) that caused the revolution in 1776 – it was the refusal of King George and his Parliament to listen with interest to the American Colonists’ legitimate grievances that led directly to the Revolution that created the American Republic.

There are indeed precedents where Presidents have used the power of organised supporters (union members for instance) to push hard for their programs – the most obvious example is President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the depths of the Great Depression. He was a master at twisting people into activism, and it was effective. However, without the alternative media of today (cable news, Internet), the opposition was unable to push back. His efforts in passing the Communications Act of 1934 (he became President in 1933) reinforced the mandate that broadcasters had to broadcast “in the public interest” which enabled him to monopolise the media as never before to reach people. However, the times were different – especially the technology – so it is hard to compare them directly.

This is especially important in light of the question about how Obama’s media handling is going to change – I don’t think it will. To date, President Obama has seemed to be “tone deaf” – he hasn’t learned from mistakes (he hasn’t even acknowledged his mistakes – he’ll apologise overseas for America’s past actions, but won’t acknowledge his own mistakes). This is, in fact, remarkable. Even Nixon acknowledged mistakes – only Obama among all of America’s Presidents has refused to admit his mistakes.

Clearly, he’s seen his poll numbers fall – he’s seen how his confrontational tactics, especially in the last few weeks, have only ramped up anger and activity of the opposition Yet, he’s only gotten more confrontational. So – unless he has a real “eureka” moment, he’ll continue as is – waiting out his opposition, seeing if they will continue or – like the opposition in Iran and China – fade out after the initial enthusiasm. That may indeed be the right strategy – in democracies, it’s hard to maintain the focus of the “silent majority” who have jobs to go to, bills to pay, families to raise and other life issues that take them away from politics and re-immerse them in what we call “real life.”