“Fired up! Ready to go! Fired up! Ready to go!—
[IMGCAP(1)]No, this not the triumphant call of some backyard chef starting up his Weber grill. It’s the zippy new refrain of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul drive. Obama has lately revived this presidential campaign slogan, using it to conclude his appearances and leaving his audiences in a state of health care reform evangelism.
The new effort to rev up his audience is part of a revamped White House communications strategy for broadcasting Obama’s message. Gone are the meandering town hall meetings where the focus shifted away from the president’s central message that the current health care system will lead to disaster for everyone and that his proposals would make those with insurance more secure and provide coverage to those who don’t have it.
And with the town hall meetings, Obama has junked what has seemed an elemental error in communications strategy. For weeks, the president, desperate to answer increasingly vitriolic criticism, attempted to dissect and dispense with the arguments against him. But in doing so, he violated a sacred tenet held by many communications specialists that the best strategy is to forget about your opponents and repeat your own message until others are hypnotized into repeating it for you.
One of the great practitioners of the art was President Ronald Reagan, who coolly ignored the carping of his rivals. He put this kind of communications strategy to perfect use with his legendary retort during a 1984 debate with his opponent, former Vice President Walter Mondale.
Reagan’s age — he was 73 — was becoming an issue in the campaign, and one of the moderators asked him about it. Instead of launching into a discussion of the issue, Reagan brushed it off with a quip. “I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign,— he deadpanned. “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.—
Of course, the comment made no sense, since Mondale was a former Senator and vice president. But Reagan’s ability to belittle the issue by essentially ignoring it — and to place the focus instead on his own wit — put the matter completely to rest.
The legendary example of how to sink your own message was offered by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 during his infamous “malaise— speech. Though actually an attempt to get America fired up and ready to go, Carter grappled too intensely with sobering reality and bummed everybody out. “We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation,— Carter droned.
Until very recently, Obama was out and about giving play to such notions as “death panels,— a “government takeover of health care— and the bankrupting of Medicare, all perils of his plan suggested by his most ardent opponents.
At a July 29 town hall meeting in Raleigh, N.C., Obama eloquently laid out, in depressing detail, the rationale of fiscal conservatives for resisting his expensive health prescriptions.
“Now, because of that debt, a lot of people are saying we can’t go any further in tackling our problems; we definitely can’t do health care — too much debt, too big deficits,— Obama said. “We dug ourselves a deep hole. And because of the recovery package that we put together, that has added to it. So we now have problems. … We can’t do it in the middle of the stimulus. We can’t do it … just as the economy is coming out of recession.—
Later the same day in Bristol, Va., Obama was repeating his opposition’s claims of a federal health care grab. “No one is talking about a government takeover of the health care plan,— Obama said. “As I was driving up, I saw some signs. You know, some folks — folks were all riled up … so somehow, I guess, they think we’re just going to take over health care.—
On Aug. 15, Obama brought up the subject of “death panels— himself.
“What you can’t do … is start saying things like, we want to set up death panels to pull the plug on grandma. I mean, come on,— Obama said. “The notion that somehow I ran for public office, or Members of Congress are in this so that they can go around pulling the plug on grandma?— He then wallowed in an effort to explain how the idea came about.
What’s more, the town hall format allowed concerned citizens to broadcast scary ideas themselves. “I have been told there is a clause in there that everyone that’s Medicare age will be visited and told to decide how they wish to die,— said one participant in an AARP telephone town hall on July 28.
During his latest appearances, Obama mainly alludes to criticism, without giving it much airtime, and then spends his time hammering home his own message. Instead of delving deeply into what irks him, the president disses the dissers.
“What we’ve also seen in these last few months is the same partisan spectacle that has left so many of you disappointed in Washington for so long,— he declared during a Sept. 12 appearance in Minneapolis. “Too many have used this opportunity to score short-term political points instead of working together to solve long-term challenges. I don’t know if you agree with me, but I think the time for bickering is over. “
Obama’s description of his health care agenda hasn’t changed much. His own message remains the same. But he is no longer broadcasting someone else’s message.