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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.


On Toxic Republican Rhetoric and Leadership

The summer of 2009 has been a bruising one for President Barack Obama, his administration, and his agenda. His poll numbers have fallen to more earthly levels, support for his health care proposals is eroding, liberal Democrats are feuding with conservative Democrats, and his Republican opponents have succeeded in muddying the debate enough to scare a lot of voters into not wanting the president's health care proposals enacted. Republicans clearly smell blood in the water, and they are now considerably more optimistic about their chances in the 2010 midterm elections.

There are certainly many arguments available to Republicans who wish to criticize President Obama. Regardless of Obama's motives or how necessary it was for him to take these measures, Republicans could attack him for the amount of money he has spent, the additional debt he has created, the government's intervention in the private economic sector, an unemployment rate of almost 10%, and his inability to make good on his rhetoric of "bringing the nation together."

Pursuing these arguments should seem like a natural fit for Republicans because the ideas of reducing spending and less government are two of the main prongs of the GOP platform.

However, these debates over political ideology have become muted over the course of the health care debate this summer. Republicans are increasingly espousing explosive rhetoric that comes from the fringes of their party. These arguments may play well with the Republican base, but they do nothing to grow the party or increase its appeal among moderates and independents who may respond more favorably to a genuine ideological message.

Comparing Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler, demanding to see his original birth certificate, bringing loaded weapons to presidential events, warning that Obama will create "death panels," advocating secession, and claiming that Obama wants to turn the United States into a socialist state are absurd charges that no serious public servant should give voice to.

It is easy to understand why Republicans are not only not repudiating this rhetoric, but also engaging in it themselves. For example, polling reveals that Republicans are actually closing the gap with Democrats when it comes to party affiliation. Some prominent political analysts are also increasingly bullish on the GOP's 2010 prospects. In other words, Republicans aren't necessarily being penalized for their conduct. So even if it is unhealthy in terms of civics, it may make political sense, at least in the short term, for Republicans to continue to actively promote or passively embrace this destructive and absurd rhetoric.

The problem for Republicans, aside from potentially making a mockery of their party and turning off moderates and independents, is that it poses a trap for those with presidential aspirations. Mitt Romney, Charlie Crist, Bobby Jindal, and Tim Pawlenty, for example, have been conspicuously silent regarding these verbal jabs. Of course, they may not want to inject themselves into this debate because Obama and the Democrats are being wounded just fine. After all, when your opponent is digging himself a hole, don't take away his shovel. They also might not want to draw the ire of their base for "going soft."

However, their silence could also be interpreted as a tacit approval of this sophomoric rhetoric. Could a Mitt Romney, for example, claim to be a "strong leader" who wants to "shake things up" when he chose not to stand up to his own party when it called Obama a Nazi? For all of Obama's foibles and shortcomings, at the very least, he looks like the grownup in the room as far as current political rhetoric is concerned. Republicans dreaming of taking over Obama's job in 2012 would be wise not to cede this issue completely to Obama for the sake of not drawing the ire of their base. The toxicity of this rhetoric must be confronted at some point, and mature and pragmatic Republicans are throwing away a golden opportunity to do so.

Copyright 2007-2010 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.