What Obama Can Learn From George W. Bush
As we enter week two of the federal government’s shutdown, the finger pointing in Washington has remained at a fever pitch. Predictably, Democrats have continued to hammer the GOP for this mess, while the GOP has not so quietly grumbled that most of them — and their mid-term re-election bids as moderates — are the ones being held hostage by Tea Party radicals from within their own ranks. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of hard-working federal employees (present company included) just want to get back to work. So where does Obama fit into this massive blame game? While most people who have been following the news would not ultimately blame the president for the shutdown, he does shoulder some level of responsibility in the big picture.
Even as Tea Party members seem unable to figure their own way out of the proverbial brown bag that they so clumsily and ardently marched their entire party (and the country along with it) into, what opened the door to the shutdown itself was the president’s lost control over the narrative surrounding the Affordable Care Act. If you don’t have control over your own narrative, other people will seize control of it for you and tell it the way they see fit. The higher the stakes, the more crucial it is that you be in control of your own narrative. This is precisely what happened with the ACA, creating a window of opportunity for a relatively small faction of Congress to orchestrate a strategy that led to the government shutdown without so much as a peep of outrage from Americans outside the ranks of federal employees.
Whatever you might think of him as a president, George W. Bush was a master of narrative control, and it began with his need to control what information was released to the public. Bush’s ability to craft and sell a narrative is best seen, however, through the foreign policy of his presidency. We did what he wanted us to do abroad, primarily because he had mastered the narrative of the US as a global superhero. He did this by protecting our home by fighting against terror abroad/seeking vengeance against those responsible for 9-11 and defended other nations against “evildoers”. Consider we waged a billion-dollar war against Iraq based off little more than Colin Powell going to Congress with what I will forever be convinced was a vial containing a Barry Bonds pee sample. All of this happened without any memorable public outcry. Beyond expertly crafting a narrative that was compelling enough to secure the buy in from the average American (the first key), the second piece to controlling this narrative once it had been present was keeping a tight leash on the flow of information. Bush had a well-known “zero tolerance” policy for anyone within arm’s length of his administration who was not a complete loyalist or went off-script in even the slightest fashion.
President Obama has lost control of the narrative surrounding the ACA. Ultimately, this allowed Republicans to paint the legislation in a negative light and convince enough of the public that fighting to defund the law — even if it meant shutting down the entire federal government — was a worthwhile battle. Once the administration attempted to regain control of the narrative by putting a positive spin on “Obamacare”, emphasizing “Obama . . . cares” it was too late. That effectively turned the term into the “n-word” of contemporary political lexicon. It was invented as a disparaging way for
whites the GOP to refer to blacks an initiative being advanced by someone who ideologically they despise and, in an attempt to shift the tide, the administration tried to flip the term on its head and create a positive from it. If there is any indication of how poorly this has worked, consider that many Americans prefer the “Affordable Care Act” to “Obamacare”.
Before the shutdown, the president’s focus on Syria kept him from “clapping back” against most of the public attacks on his healthcare plan. But by not trotting out the troops within his cabinet and giving them a “company line” — to remind Americans that the ACA was already an upheld law that would benefit millions previously without healthcare — (translation: Republicans are really, really sore losers), the attacks continued. These same attacks ended up swaying the opinions of many under-informed Americans to oppose his plan being funded, even where its provisions would like benefit some of its very detractors.
Losing control over the narrative allowed the GOP to appear austere in their intentions rather than nefarious. As a result, despite the black eye that the GOP has due to the shutdown (Thank you, Mark Meadows!) the Obama administration has also taken a pounding in the court of public opinion and has no one else to blame but itself.
Being the president means you have to be able to juggle a lot of items on your plate at the same damn time. The Tea Party’s reckless posturing and John Boehner’s inability to resist the radical members of his own party made the shutdown almost inevitable. Still, the president must find a way — through better use of his own cabinet, stronger messaging through his public allies in Congress and the Senate — to keep control of the narrative surrounding his policies and initiatives. For as much as his legacy may have benefited from the initial passage of the ACA, a government shutdown following this year’s sequester and furloughs for many government employees now threatens to overshadow all of his progress in history’s annals.
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