As the 111th Congress peters out, many House Democrats are looking ahead to next year with hope for new faces — starting with a new chief of staff — and a stronger marketing strategy coming out of the White House.
The most significant change in the offing is the expected resignation of Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who appears set to enter the Chicago mayoral race.
Democrats say President Barack Obama should use his impending staff shake-up as an opportunity to come up with better ways for communicating his party’s successes to the public, an area where many say the president has fallen short.
“The messaging has been terrible almost since day one. One of the best communicated campaigns I’ve ever seen and the worst messaging presidency,” one liberal House Member said.
House Democrats don’t dispute Obama’s success in ushering through major legislative victories such as health care reform, financial regulatory reform and stimulus legislation. But several lawmakers complained that he still has not fully grasped the importance of messaging.
“People don’t understand the stimulus,” said Rep. John Tanner (Tenn.), a Blue Dog Democrat who is retiring this year.
Tanner said that despite the $787 billion package earning the support of “almost every reputable economist from the right to the left,” the public never grasped that it was key to stemming a deeper recession. As a result, Republicans largely succeeded in framing the measure as a massive government spending disaster.
Tanner said the fact that the package prevented the economy from sinking at a faster rate “wasn’t communicated. You never get credit for stopping something bad from happening.”
A senior Democratic aide said many Members “feel like Obama gets sidetracked thinking about the fact that he’s a Nobel Prize winner, or that he’s got to worry about winning Iowa in four years.”
Not that it’s news to the administration that they have been getting beat by Republicans on messaging. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius conceded during a House Democratic Caucus meeting last week that the GOP has done well in the health care reform messaging war.
Sebelius, who specifically visited the Caucus to arm Democrats with talking points on health care, said Republicans “have done a good job, that they’ve been very good with the sound bites,” according to one senior aide who was in the room.
But now may be the time for Obama to redeem himself in the eyes of skeptical lawmakers. With major changes already under way in the president’s team of close advisers, Democrats say he should seize the opportunity to refocus his strategy on connecting with the public.
“The White House always has the ability to control the bully pulpit. ... Whoever comes in will have to have that laser-like focus in terms of figuring out just what the issues are that we need to be talking about and start talking about them,” said Rep. Joe Crowley (N.Y.), vice chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Several of Obama’s top advisers have already mapped out their exit plans. Senior adviser David Axelrod will leave the White House in the spring to jump-start Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign. Economic adviser Larry Summers is returning to Harvard University at the end of the year. Other changes include Herb Allison stepping down as the head of the government’s $700 billion financial bailout program, Peter Orszag quitting his post as director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Christina Romer leaving her slot as head of the Council of Economic Advisers.
Obama’s most noted change in personnel will come from Emanuel, who is all but certain to announce his plan to run for Chicago mayor on Friday. And some say whoever replaces him has to understand the need for a better communications strategy with the public if Democrats expect to be successful.
“The job of the chief of staff is one, to organizationally help make sure the trains are on time, and two, just to prioritize and help the president lay out a vision,” one senior House Democratic aide said. “We allowed the right to hijack the debate on health care and on the Recovery Act. If that’s a huge vulnerability then I think the incoming chief of staff should be dealing with it. Absolutely.”
Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) said whoever fills Emanuel’s shoes is going to have to be ready to counter the ongoing messaging strategy of Senate Republicans. That strategy, he said, is to “shut it all down” by blocking all bills and then accuse Democrats of failing to advance their agenda.
“We pass the bills, they blockade them in the Senate and then they point their fingers like the person who kills his father and mother and then appeals to he court for mercy because he’s an orphan. They created the problem ... that’s baloney,” he said.
“We need a very well-coordinated executive branch, legislative branch strategy going into the next Congress,” Oberstar said.
Even Republicans known for working with the White House had similar advice for Obama as he picks a new chief of staff and other advisers, particularly in light of expected GOP gains in November.
“The main thing is this new person needs to understand what in 2010 the message really was,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said.