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Fewer Press Conferences, More Ads
Biden's recent presser was a textbook example of why the traditional media is a terrible way to get the message out
Back in 2013, I was walking down the colonnade in the White House with President Obama. He had just finished a particularly annoying interview where he was peppered with questions from a glorified teleprompter reader about his political standing.
Less than a year removed from winning re-election amidst a slow economy and becoming the first President since Eisenhower to win 51 percent of the vote twice, the media questioned Obama’s political skills and communications chops.
“Why are we always better at getting our message out during the campaign?” he asked me.
“Well, nearly a billion dollars in advertising certainly didn’t hurt,” I responded a bit too quickly.
“You think?” he responded even more quickly.
The bemused, bordering-on-annoyed look on Obama’s face suggested that I failed to recognize the rhetorical nature of his question.
The messaging problems we were confronting in 2013 are the same ones that Joe Biden and his White House are confronting in 2021 as they figure out how to sell the American Rescue Plan. As I learned firsthand, a strategy that depends primarily on the White House Press Corps is doomed to fail. The traditional media has neither the reach nor the inclination to tell the public about the ins and outs of the American Rescue Plan. A reality that was on full display during Biden’s first “formal press conference” and one with which all Democrats need to come to terms.
Press Conference Foibles
The White House Press Corps has been aggressive — and in some cases, performatively — demanding that President Biden hold a press conference. It’s not that Biden hasn’t taken questions from the press. There have been multiple pool sprays, several interviews, and townhalls broadcast on live television. He just hadn’t held a formal press conference (whatever the hell that is). The White House press corps is always going to agitate for more access. That’s their job. My only beef is when some press laud Trump for the amount of access he gave them compared to Obama and Biden. If you care more about your ability to ask questions than the truthfulness of the answers you receive, you might be in the wrong business.
But I digress.
Yesterday’s press conference highlighted the challenge of press conferences — and press coverage — in selling the American Rescue Plan. Biden took questions for about an hour, but none of the questions were about the pandemic, vaccines, or the American Rescue Plan. Honestly, it is shocking there were no questions on the biggest issue facing the country in decades, but there were a couple of questions asked about Biden’s plans for 2024.
Susan Glasser of the New Yorker is a card-carrying member of the Washington media establishment, yet even she was compelled to express her shock and frustration:
There was not a single question, meanwhile, about the ongoing pandemic that for the past year has convulsed life as we know it and continues to claim an average of a thousand lives a day. How is this even possible during a once-in-a-century public-health crisis, the combating of which was the central theme of Biden’s campaign and remains the central promise of his Presidency? It’s hard not to see it as anything other than an epic and utterly avoidable press fail.
To be fair, most of the questions were serious, substantive, and lacking the performative flourish that suggests the questioner is a little too focused on how their question appeared on TV. However, the absence of questions about Biden’s handling of the pandemic and the massive piece of legislation bespeaks the challenges in using the press as the primary vehicle for communicating the Administration’s message.
Talking/writing about the “media” is always challenging because the “media” now means everything from the New York Times to Breitbart to Crooked Media. For the purposes of this post, I am referring to the “traditional” media — the television networks, the major papers, and the wire service. These are the outlets that Democratic politicians depend on to communicate their message to the voters.
These outlets will always ignore what is going right in favor of what is going wrong.
As former White House Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri tweeted:
I can promise you that if Biden were failing to meet (as opposed to exceeding) his vaccination goals, the topic would have dominated the event. This dynamic is not unique to the press conference. Biden, Vice President Harris, and an array of cabinet secretaries will spend the next several months touring the country touting the American Rescue Plan. While those events will certainly receive valuable local coverage, the White House Press Corps will give these events scant coverage. If Biden takes questions from the media at these American Rescue Plan events, the questions will be about other topics. With each day, the passage of the American Rescue Plan fades further into the past, and more of the media moves onto the next crisis du jour.
Utilizing the media as the primary communication vehicle means the success or failure of our political strategy depends on the whims of news executives who do not share our interests.
Think of it this way. Our message is the product, and the voters are the customers. A business would never entrust the distribution of its product to a competitor. Yet, that’s exactly what Democrats do when they rely on the New York Times and others to tell voters about our accomplishments and agenda.
Not a Problem on the Right
The Republicans do not have this problem. They have spent decades building up a robust Right Wing media operation that serves as a party organ communicating the message to the faithful. For all of the Democratic bemoaning of the power of Fox News et al., we generally understate the power of this apparatus. Despite the different entities and personalities that make up the Right Wing machine, it operates with a hive mind-like consistency and discipline. When opportunity strikes, they pivot on a dime to the most politically appealing topics. Right-Wing media coverage of the Biden presser relentlessly focused on a ridiculous New York Post story that falsely claimed Biden used a cheat sheet for the answers. They gravitated to this story because Biden’s steady performance gave them no other opportunity to push their false message that the President isn’t cognitively up to the job.
When Barack Obama was President, the Right Wing media covered the economy as if it was a disaster. They ignored positive news, trumped-up negative news, and just made a lot of stuff up. The moment Trump was elected, they began describing the economy as the greatest in American history even though the pace of job creation had slowed under Trump. Fox News played a similar role during the Bush Administration by pretending the Iraq War was succeeding and savaging any Democrat that wondered why America invaded a country that didn’t attack us on 9/11.
The Republicans do not need the traditional media to get their message out. They do not need to go through the filter. They can deliver their chosen message directly into the cortexes of their voters. Democrats do not (yet) have this ability, and it’s why we need reinforcements.
Here Come the Ads
In the long run, the only way to solve our problem and compete with the Right is to build up a robust progressive media ecosystem. Much good work has been done on this front, but we are still very far behind. In the meantime, Democrats need to supplement their earned media efforts with paid advertising. The great news is that an array of Democratic groups are doing exactly that as part of the effort to sell the American Rescue Plan.
The three major Democratic campaign committees — the DNC, DSCC, and DCCC — are running ads promoting the American Rescue Plan … Outside groups are allocating millions of dollars to run ads across swing states and competitive districts, according to a Democratic strategist tracking the efforts.
One of those outside groups is Unite the Country, a pro-Biden Super PAC. Here’s the ad they are running in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, and Georgia.
This is an incredibly welcome turn of events. No matter what the media decides to cover, persuadable voters will see a steady stream of content about the American Rescue Plan. The fact that Democratic donors are willing to invest in advertising campaigns this far out from the election represents a huge shift in strategy and an understanding of just how much the media environment has changed.
I am not arguing that Democrats should ignore the media or stop taking their questions. President Biden should have a regular cadence of press conferences and take questions when it makes sense. The media has an important role to play, but it’s not the role many Democrats believe it to be. Communicating through the press should be part of the strategy, but it can’t be the whole strategy. And it’s not enough for the rest of us to sit on the sidelines. We have a role to play too. We can share positive stories, remind our networks about the positive accomplishments, and post the ads on social media. Every one of us can be curators and amplifiers.
And if you don’t believe me. Re-watch that press conference.