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Obama vs. Wilson: A Public Relations Perspective

President Obama delivered an hour long address to a joint session of Congress tonight. In his speech, he spoke with greater specificity regarding which elements he wanted included in his vision of health care and health insurance reform. He attempted to reassure seniors and Americans who currently have insurance by telling them that their benefits would not be cut and that they could keep their current insurance plans and doctors. More importantly, he debunked a lot of the rumors that had been swirling about his plan. Fiscal conservatives might still have some questions about how these reform measures would be paid for, but analysts (at least at CNN) seem to think the speech was effective.

This post is not about Obama's speech, however. It is about the unexpected case study in public relations provided by Republican Congressman Joe Wilson from South Carolina. (Disclaimer: I live in Congressman Wilson's district.) Congressman Wilson heckled the president by shouting "you lie" when Obama stated that his plans would not cover illegal immigrants. In addition to showing a lack of respect for the office of the presidency on national television, Wilson's outburst stepped on the Republicans' own message while causing their brand to take another hit right when they were beginning to gain some traction against Obama who had been sliding in the polls in recent weeks. (Needless to say, fundraising appeals set up to oust Wilson have gone into overdrive.)

Which Republican were pundits and media organizations talking about after the speech? Certainly not Rep. Charles Boustany, who delivered the Republican response after Obama's address. Instead, the media were focused on Wilson. That alone translates to a wasted opportunity for the Republican Party. Instead of talking about tort reform, excessive spending, or expanded government, the narrative is about Republicans' lack of civility.

Politically speaking, Obama's temperament contrasted sharply with Wilson's rudeness and makes Obama come across as the leader, the statesman, and the grown-up in the room. Instead of pitching their own reform ideas, Republicans will now have to field questions from constituents and journalists over the next few days asking them how they feel about Wilson's outburst and how they think he should be punished. Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post noted the poor visuals of the Republican members who were caught using their Blackberries, slouching, and looking sour during Obama's speech even when he mentioned principles that conservatives should be happy with. Independents and moderates may have been drifting away from Obama because he had lost control of his message during August, but Wilson's rudeness, combined with the poor optics of the Republicans in the chamber, likely blunted any momentum Republicans had been building with the political center and reminded voters why they rejected the GOP in 2006 and 2008.

Even more importantly, Obama has the benefit of high personal approval ratings. This should work to his advantage regarding voter trust. Voters may look with skepticism at Wilson and Republicans by extension because they came across as immature, vindictive, and not negotiating in good faith. This may make their other political arguments seem less credible because they themselves appear less credible. Wilson has since apologized, but he still hurt his party's brand and stepped on his party's message at a time when tens of millions of people were tuning in.

This squandered opportunity for Republicans only strengthens Obama's hand.

9 comment(s):

Anonymous said...

The most telling thing is the spontaneousness of the outburst. He really meant it! This is how worked-up the most extreme of the conservatives are: they REALLY believe these things they have made up.....

Its all lack-based thinking. It causes people to be afraid of otherwise obviously good ideas like everyone sharing the resources, like everyone helping each other, ideas like everyone having a good life and a good education and living a long time. Why else would someone be afraid of such things unless their thinking was based on lack rather than possibility??

Anonymous said...

Wilson is a A$$hole, South Carolinas has been disgraced once again. No respect at all!Thats the kind of people that come from that state.

Anonymous said...

The president failed to address the biggest problem of all: the outrageous cost of healthcare. My son recently cut the back of his head, requiring 5 staples put in by a physician assistant which took ten minutes in the ER. The bill which my ins. co. paid and which we paid our share was over $2,000. Price gouging in the healthcare industry is what needs to be addressed.

Anonymous said...

Joe Wilson owes the American people and children an appology.

Joe you discraced the entire congress with your outburst and I think you should keep your mouth shut if the party has not shut it for you. The next ellection will show what SC. thinks of you now !

David M Manes said...

Excellent analysis (as always), Anthony.

I think another reason that nobody is talking about what Boustany said is that Obama preempted basically everything he said. The president addressed all of the major Republican concerns including the deficit, covering illegals, and rationing. Boustany's speech didn't sound like a response. It sounded like he didn't listen to anything Obama said.

Anonymous said...

I think your analysis is absolutely correct, thank you!

But in a way, I wonder if this wasn't actually planned?

The Republican response to the speech sounded like no one actually read or heard the speech, and of course, they had read it ahead of time!

And for the Republicans to call for bi-partisan cooperation in the process of reforming health care -- when they have done nothing to be bi-partisan -- is so transparent it is laughable (as is the current state of the Republican party.)

If the incident has not happened during the speech, I am sure the pundits would be all over the Republican response like butter on warm toast. It was so incorrect, I sat there and asked "Were you even in the room?"

So perhaps, knowing this, they engineered this outburst to draw attention to a "sacrificial" representative rather than leave themselves exposed on their response?

I know, that sounds like conspiracy theory, but considering what the Republican Party has been doing lately, I wouldn't put anything past them!

See what they have created in one voter, me? I have no trust of that party at all now. Their publicity has engineered that very effectively.

I know there are some media and PR gurus who say that getting attention, no matter for what, is a good thing because ANY publicity is good. I disagree.

Branding is essential to any business. The Republican Brand is looking very shabby lately and continues to deteriorate except with people who also behave like they don't think, and they too get publicity, which escalates the negative image created.

What does a Congressperson or political party want to be known for? Being childish and petty or genuine leadership?

Since the Republican party is in the business of leadership, one would think they would demonstrate responsible leadership, not the nonsense that has been going on.

What the world must think of us!

Thanks for your intelligent blog, it was something I wanted to read!

S.C. Denney said...

I think Wilson's outburst epitomizes the Republican train of thought towards anything not seen as mainstream Republican: thinking not, ridicule always.

It really is a shame just how unintellectual and political inept much of the American right has become. More and more these days they remind me of Orwell's sheep (from Animal Farm). Republican good, Democrat bad!

It'll be interesting to see where the debate goes from here. I think Obama has a good chance for a resounding defeat of the fringe (or should I say mainstream?). A win in the health care debate could galvanize his otherwise stagnated agenda. We'll see.

Bobbie said...

I totally agree that Wilson is an A$$. he needs to be censured by the entire Congress & sent packing to the woodshed in the next election cycle!!!!
I had a similar reaction to the republican response as others did. Where WAS this guy when Obama was making an intelligent, respectful speech???? he certainly didn't listen to it!

Reginald Harrison Williams said...

To me, it's amazing how unprofessional GOPs have been to Obama during this Healthcare debate from Sarah Palin's "death panel" rants to Wilson's "you lie."

I wish more GOP moderates were on the horizon...especially in SC.

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