Just two weeks into the official second term of the Obama Administration, staffing changes have been announced, candidates rejected before actually being nominated and of course resignations have all made the news. There is a lot of media speculation about how the president will lead the next four years and the obvious staffing changes being made has everyone in the beltway chattering the likes about leverage and negotiation strategy with the Republicans. One staffing change that has not been mentioned or even written about is that of the Communications director. Granted the role isn’t as sexy as some of the cabinet positions, but it is just as important. Right now there have been no changes announced. Based on the first term, there really should be a new leader brought on.
The current communications director, Dan Pfeiffer, has basically a low profile since the most visible person has been Jay Carney, the Press Secretary. The director of social media communications, Macon Phillips has had some prominence; however, Pfeiffer is the architect of how the message machine coordinates. Judging by past performance in the first term and even as the Fiscal Cliff negotiations came to a head; the communications team failed the public. The next two years of this second term are critical in terms of informing the public properly with a true transparent communications plan that will force a divided congress to work. The standard education and work experience for communications directors should require an actual degree in communications along with work experience. Also a communications director must know the discipline of messaging and public relations. Unfortunately since 2009, the White House has missed the mark when Mr. Pfeiffer was elevated to the leadership role with no educational background in communication and with only Washington DC bubble work experience on the Hill in many staff roles, just not communications. It’s time for a change and a move “Forward” as the president’s last campaign proclaimed. Here’s the case for action noting key communication misses for the administration:
Health Reform – The team could not break this down for the public in simple terms and describe what the benefits were for access to care and coverage. The communication failure allowed the Republicans to label the changes as a “death panel”, make misleading statements indicating that the White House was shoving a requirement on people by violating their rights or a giveaway inflating healthcare with government spending. No messaging or even crisis management was executed as a public relations move with the public. Fast forward to 2012, the Supreme Court gave a gift of upholding the law and this same team still could not inform the public and help it understand the benefits, as well as shine a light on the governors who refuse to help the people in their states by not complying coordinating state exchanges.
Benghazi – Regardless where the information came from, how it was delivered from the State Department and other intelligence sources. The skill of crisis communications is required to manage both public perception and your opponent’s stance. The administration did the correct thing with having the president speak directly to address the situation; however, having Susan Rice be the fall guy happened because actions were taken too late. The communications team was not proactive at all.
Solyndra – Although it was a failed business, the Communications team failed with combining historic review of past administrations support of businesses that failed. The communication miss allowed all detractors of clean energy, use this as an example of why the administration’s policies reinforce giveaways. Granted giving favor to pet projects and to influential people with access are all about politics, the Communications team allowed this to get out of hand with no response to quell it; right now time and the public’s memory about the issue remains.
Stimulus and Financial Bailout – Yet again another missed opportunity explaining both these items to public. Too much dependency on the Press Secretary relaying information to the media and subjecting understanding and results information to sources. The stimulus was a part of two different presidential budgets. This failure allowed a dysfunctional congress to mis-inform the public. Also, the Communications team was unable to clearly illustrate to the public the negotiation process. We didn’t finally get the message until the campaign, when former president Bill Clinton helped on the campaign. There should not have been a need for a Chief Explainer of economics three years after the stimulus was passed.
These are just the most prominent issues that signal how a leadership change in Communications is needed. The Communications director can make or break this president’s final legacy as well as set-up the Democratic Party’s next standing in congress and at state levels. Change in leading communications should be in the mix for all of the staffing changes because the White House must do better than the first term.