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Obama Team: "We Don't Need No Stinkin' Messages"

By Robert S Becker

20 October , 2010

"Agreed, we have an insular White House that fails Messaging 101," commented a close friend, "but where are examples of good messages that frame positive, progressive moral politics." Admirable challenge to all us ungrateful "professional leftists" addicted only to complaining. Readers, pipe up, throw in your nickel's worth: you, too, can be marginalized by fat cats as fickle, unserious, or disloyal.

Experienced at business and ad copywriting, I'll try my hand at quality messaging that frames issues and conveys humanistic values. "Headlines R Us," or renewing my old motto, "Words that Work." Actually, we alienated left boast one advantage over this impoverished White House gang: we harbor no delusions about bipartisan traps by GOP muggers, rife with derision and bad faith.

Is politics not about morality and values, as George Lakoff argues? Moral high ground, such as it is today, comes from messaging that divides one group (say, progressives or Democrats) from rightwing thugs playing hard ball, like Sharron Angle or Rand Paul or Carl Paladino. What's to lose, with midterms falling off the cliff, like water(boarding) over the dam?

Missed Messaging, Right and Left

Certainly, the left blames Team Obama for colossal blunders in messaging and framing, allowing viral Tea Party wrath to explode, losing Democrats majority support, and failing to promote enacted legislation after the fact. "Death panels" had to be answered in kind and could have been, with variations on health as "life panels." Alas. The public option never had a chance, despite widespread support: Obama had cravenly bargained it away and then put the stake in its heart with zero push. Likewise, abysmal messaging shot down potential environmental wins after the Gulf oil spill horror or real Wall Street reforms after Banksters broke their own bank.

In short, a smarter, more agile White House would have leveraged some "throw the bums out" Tea Party hysteria, not gotten run over by bromides from blockheads. Beyond botching that mock uproar, Obama, Biden, Emanuel and Gibbs committed a worse, still mystifying blunder -- they threw their own base under the bus. Not learning from one's failures, then instead blaming victims, are mortal blows to political endurance.

No wonder a wounded Obama can hardly inspire well-served corporate allies to keep his party fundraising competitive. As Rachel Maddow demonstrated, wacky wingnut wins don't depend on sensible policies or good character, only enough millions to obscure your nonsense and smear your opponent. Just call the Karl Rove Bank of Boundless Corporate Cash (BBCC).

Curing the Health Debate

Health care rewrites first: instead of "corporate-health insurance reform," vulnerable to fringe "government takeover" talk, why not a bold campaign for "American Total Health Care, Today's Human Right," or "Health: America's Real Crusade"? Why not headlines like "Restoring America's Failing Health" or, for the faithful, "The Gospel of Bodily and Spiritual Health"?

Not just wider coverage, bureaucratic advances, or squaring bank accounts, but compelling, uplifting, transcendent values. System-driven messages should have paralleled the blessings of Medicare, universal immunization and emergency room care, even dared evoke our national mandate "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." No chance for such dreams if you're in pain, sick, bed-ridden, or dying.

Why not argue that community, indeed civilization, depends on not letting sick people die alone and showing compassion to the weak (babies, kids, downtrodden and old)? Instead, with miserable messaging, this WH got us compromised "insurance reform," not care-taking reform for the compromised. Why didn't Obama evoke the compassion informing the Christian gospel, a transcendent value and test for can-do Yankee exceptionalism? Clearly, private charities have failed to achieve wellbeing, so government must intervene.

Is this tricky or obscure? Why not especially use selfless Christian charity to assail uncaring, unfeeling Republicans? Would neglect of the sick and dying not qualify as sin? In these terms, universal health care becomes the ultimate, community "right to life." Can fundamentalists despise abortion as murder while neglecting dying neighbors crying out in the night?

Defend Birth Control, Not "Abortion"

Speaking of which, if compassion for the sick serves the common good (certainly tempering contagions), then the whole "abortion" debate needs revision, placing it beyond law and government. Where's the public good gained from "forcing unmarried girls to produce unwanted children," thus "jeopardizing the health and future of both"? Scarce "tax dollars should address disease," not block "the right of family birth control." Pregnancy itself is no disease, nor its termination, and the bankruptcy of letting "careless children produce children" seems self-evident (unless good anti-abortionists pay costs, set up orphanages, school and care for unwanted kids).

Tellingly, neither the word "abortion," nor the concept has Biblical resonance; the Old Law permitted infanticide when children were illegitimate. Switch the frames: pregnancy does not answer to legal or political mandates, defining a mother's (and father's) "inalienable right to monitor their own bodies" (and subsequent responsibilities). New headlines: "Wanted: Only Wanted Children," or "Maternity: A Right, Not a Fabricated Divine Command" or "The State Doesn't Make Babies, Only Parents Do and Should."

Gay Rights in the Military

Instead of forever postponing repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (note double negatives), good messaging reinforces the government's positive role to guarantee rights, not institutionalize abuse. Reverse the entire debate, not about merely repealing wrong policy but asserting "inalienable personal freedoms protected by law." All qualified patriots deserve "the right to serve their country" and "gay rights are civil rights," needing similar protections.

In short, good messaging shifts the focus from legalized discrimination to "maximizing personal rights and opportunity," the joy of every libertarian. If progressive politicians knew how to frame moral issues, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" would become "Never Ask, Never Tell" or "Only Bravery and Competence Matter," even "National Security, Not Nationalized Bias."

The Anti-war President?

Instead of vacuous war cries about "fighting al Qaeda" in Afghanistan, distortions from Bush-Cheney propaganda, Obama should have begun restating foreign policy objectives as staged "Exodus from Global Militarism." Ginned up anti-terrorism didn't work for Bush and isn't working now, tagging America not as beacon of democracy but a "foolish, brutal belligerent." Effective messaging would have pushed "Getting Out Alive," including "Bankruptcy Too High a Cost for Losing Endless Quagmires." Apt messaging informs voters about our real regional, economic and geo-political interests, dramatizing the damage from indiscriminate predatory drones and defense of dictators.

Committing his greatest betrayal, the president not only broke his word by delaying Iraq departures and turning violent warrior, he missed an historic opportunity to change tunnel vision about pre-emptive, imperial interventions. Instead, America has managed the bizarre outcome of squandering billions, killing innocents, all the while still losing Bush's wars and decimating what's left of our reputation -- a triple whammy.

Had this commander-in-chief leveraged his once-a-generation opportunity, as post-Vietnam, Obama could have turned around a scattered, failing empire bloated with countless outposts. Had he reversed our image as "the world's police force," Obama would have saved billions for the kinds of domestic projects that could have saved his party this election cycle. That would have made him a transformational president, both internationally and domestically, with homeland projects that would have deflected the midterm fiasco upon us. Instead, we fight moving shadows on hostile, tribal turf controlled by warlords we must buy off.

Messaging Reflect Mindsets

Of course, Obama's miserable messaging speaks to more than the failure to communicate, revealing entrapment by ingrained, counterproductive mindsets. Superior (moral) messages emanate from enlightened politicians with vision and savvy enough to know when and how to challenge the status quo.

As this week's notorious, ironically-named NY Times Magazine interview, "The Education of a President," proves, Obama's consciousness has not evolved. The president fantasizes if Republicans suffer less than victory, they will reconsider their "strategy of just saying no to everything and sitting on the sidelines and throwing bombs [that] didn't work for them." On what planet? And if the GOP takes Congress, projects Obama, "the American people are going to be looking to them to offer serious proposals and work with me in a serious way." In what universe does this guy reside?

Facing the fiercest anti-government, anti-tax, anti-co-operation, anti-reason Party in generations, election results be damned, by what logic or evidence does Mr. Obama envision the GOP helping him win re-election? Or serve national interests? Is this the WH midterm "message" along with bashing the base? The Party of Demolition will investigate him wildly, making every attempt to manufacture articles of impeachment, however bizarre. Impeachment worked the last time around.

What Obama continues to prove is that bad messaging isn't only about compromised intentions, but missed, historic opportunities and incompetent politics, refusing to learn from his own administration mistakes. Will an election thumping change that mindset?