Protecting the Obama brand

Salena Zito
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Posted: Feb 08, 2009 12:00 AM
Protecting the Obama brand

How does President Obama live up to the hype/hope that so embodied him as a candidate?

By keeping the promise of his image in line with the delivery of his actions – and never letting the two pull apart.

Obama is an effective brand built on the image of change. Implemented by a team of brilliant strategists, the brand has gone from the control of campaigning to the chaos of governing.

“The challenge for Barack Obama is that he won this remarkable campaign of being all things to all people,” said Republican strategist Alex Castellanos. "You can’t be that when you govern."

Unfortunately for Obama, a little brand-tampering has occurred in the past two weeks: the tax challenges of Treasury Secretary Tim Geitner; the domestic-help tax issue of first-ever “performance czar” Nancy Killefer; the pay-to-play legal issues of Commerce nominee Bill Richardson; and the car-and-driver tax issues of Health and Human Services nominee Tom Daschle. Three of those four did not survive.

And don’t forget the Obama White House’s all-lobbyists-are-bad-except-my-lobbyists exemptions.

None of this lives up to the whole “Change you can believe in” branding – but neither does it become a Tylenol-tampering moment, when outside influences tarnish the brand, or a “let's re-invent Coke with New Coke” internal-decision disaster.

Obama the Brand was elected on a great wave of hope, that things somehow could be different. What he needs to do is to demonstrate that somehow things will be different.

Every time a Geitner or Daschle moment occurs, it reminds people of the old Washington – not what they voted and hoped for.

The team that protects the brand is on constant guard to deflect outside damage and internal gimmicks that might erode it. That includes what any good marketing team outside of politics does to keep a brand name appealing: focus groups and market research – a tactic that Obama's chief political adviser, David Axelrod, freely admits using.

Axelrod employed focus-group research to poll public attitudes about the economy, Obama’s biggest challenge heading into the White House. Those results are being used for message-framing and language, as the president and Congress talk stimulus proposals.

When the Daschle disaster hit, Obama wisely engaged in a multi-network “I am sorry, I screwed up” tour. That reinforced his "things are different now in Washington" image.

Anything that comes across as politics-as-usual is bad for his brand; all things outside of that, such as bipartisan outreach (whether or not it works) are good.

In many ways, Obama’s different-Washington line in the sand has boxed-in his administration.

All of the adults in the room know that many of the really smart, experienced hands in Washington have been in government before or hang around government – a path that leads directly to K Street, a.k.a. “Lobbyist Row.”

Proselytizing during a campaign about not using lobbyists may look great on newspaper editorial pages. Yet branding lobbying as horse dung leaves you open to eventually stepping in it.

“When it comes to lobbyists, politicians need to stop acting holier than thou,” said Bert Rockman, Purdue University political science professor. “Yes, it plays well with public opinion, but if the bar is set high enough, no one who knows anything will be in a position to do anything.”

The consequence is that we will have a government of incompetents and incompetence.

Our system depends on money. Either we change that system so that it’s less money-dependent, or we accept that people leaving office will work directly or indirectly for the numerous interests that have a stake in what government does.

“Look, everyone knows the Obama brand is ‘change,’ but it does not take much to prove it is not,” warns GOP strategist Castellanos. “… It is something much more fluid and flexible.”

Rockman puts it a different way: Obama is definitely on message, “but this is a message he may live to regret.”