The Obama White House has a warped messaging strategy. In this week’s Time Magazine, Obama’s senior advisor and former campaign manager David Plouffe celebrates the president as a sort-of entertainer-in-chief, rather than a serious leader.
Plouffe tells Time that when President Obama recently spoke about immigration at the Texas border and said off-script of those who want greater border security: “Maybe they’ll need a moat. Maybe they’ll want alligators in the moat,” this was a messaging victory.
According to Plouffe, the messaging “victory” is apparently measured by the amount of times that line was repeated on Twitter, regardless of how it was accepted. Not many communications strategists would see such a negatively-received off-the-cuff remark as a success, but Plouffe does.
Similarly, Plouffe “proudly” celebrated the president’s White House Correspondents Dinner comedy routine for getting over eight million views on YouTube. Plouffe said: “People saw that and said, ‘I am going to share it with my family and friends.’”
For the casual Twitter user, seeing your material re-tweeted is a confidence or ego building exercise. But for a White House communications team, the analysis would hopefully dig a little deeper. After all, President Obama has over eight million Twitter followers. The White House has an additional two million followers. If the president’s goal is to beat Ashton Kutcher, who has six million Twitter followers, he has already won. (But he’s got a long way to go to top Lady Gaga.)
In fact, a great deal of the tweets on the president’s immigration speech weren’t favorable to the president. They were condemnations over the president calling on Republicans to have a “serious debate” while he trivialized their concerns with arrogant and unserious banter, best saved for late night television.
Steve Schippert, a national security analyst, said on Twitter: “POTUS: US-Mexico border more secure than ever. Seriously?” To which U.S. Senator John Cornyn tweeted in response: “Being willfully ignorant of the facts is a possibility.” A Plouffe victory!
President Obama said in his immigration speech: “The [border] fence is now basically complete.” To which ABC White House Correspondent Jake Tapper tweeted: “POTUS says the border fence is essentially done. Feb 2011 GAO report would beg to differ> http://1.usa.gov/kcagiI” Another Plouffe victory!
Jeff Gee, a Texas firefighter who was battling a wildfire that the president chose to ignore on his visit said of the alligator comment: “I’m really disappointed at current border security, I’m really disappointed at the President’s speech saying that people like me wants moats with alligators.”
Larry Dever, a sheriff in Cochise County, Texas said: “These people are not overreacting…they see human smuggling and drug trafficking, they sit on their porch and watch people walk through, they’ve had their homes burgled.”
But if Gee and Dever had simply condemned the president’s remarks on Twitter, it would have been a messaging victory for the president in Plouffe’s office.
Interestingly, the White House chose to also include partisan catcalls in the official transcript of the president’s immigration remarks including someone yelling “they’re racist,” referring to border security proponents. Apparently, vitriolic and unwarranted attacks by audience members now rises to the level of presidential record-keeping in the Plouffe messaging operation.
In the Time article, Plouffe also rejoiced at the large television audience the president received the night he broke the news that Osama bin Laden was killed by Navy Seals, due to the social networking phenomenon. But was this a Plouffe victory as well?
Most of the American public was grousing that evening about the typical-tardiness of the president before the news broke, and when the word of bin Laden’s death did break, it came via Twitter. It’s unlikely that David Plouffe’s message strategy that evening was to have a former Chief of Staff to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld break the news to America.
In the week after the announcement, the White House message machine exalted in Time was a picture of chaos and gossip with conflicting reports, cabinet-level disagreements, inappropriate intelligence revelations all mixed with a now-expected amount of hubris. But to be fair, the president’s name was mentioned a lot on Twitter.
President Obama must engage in serious discussions about border security, terrorism, the economy and a host of other issues. These issues are measured by outcomes, not chatter. So it is a problem when the president offers little in the way of constructive substance to these debates and his senior advisor acts like a Hollywood publicist. It’s time to get serious and engage the discussions, not simply engage the public with entertainment.
You can follow Rory Cooper on Twitter @rorycooper