Politics 101 – Define yourself before your opponent has an opportunity to define you.
This simple rule applies to message development and messaging as well. Define your message before your opponent/the opposition can define your message.
Then Senator Obama was masterful at this, defining his message as one of hope and change while his primary opponents scrambled between varieties of different messages. By the time the field had narrowed, Senator Obama owned the hope and change “space” and controlled his message all the way to the Presidency.
That same messaging strategy has been lacking in the current healthcare debate. Take this week’s hot button issue – a public option in health care reform. What has the Administration said about a public option?
June 15 – White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs – “…That’s why a strong public option is necessary to ensure that competition.”
August 15 – President Obama – “The public option, whether we have it or don’t have it, is not the entirety of healthcare reform.”
August 16 – Secretary of Health Kathleen Sebelius – …a government run health insurance plan was not the essential element of Obama’s program
August 17 – Press Secretary Gibbs – “…the president, his position, the administration’s position, is unchanged: that we have a goal of fostering choice and competition in a private health insurance market. The president prefers the public option as a way of doing that.”
Right now the President is in dangerous territory in that he is a) almost entirely on defense and b) entirely off message because c) there is no clear message.
What the President can do:
1. Develop a message — what does this reform look like, why should American’s care, and what is in it for the; Get every Cabinet member and Administration official on message immediately
2. Utilize a primetime “Clear the Air” address – not a town hall, not a question and answer; an address, using plain language and basic concepts to outline exactly what the plan he envisions will do and will look like; go back to what got you there — simple concepts that everyone can understand; do not read off of a teleprompter – if you are making an emotional appeal, speak from the heart (and note cards with bullet points)
3. Consistency – The hole is pretty deep due to the lack of consistency; however a consistent, compelling, clear message, championed repeatedly, will help dramatically
4. Shift the Battlefield – Once a message has gotten distorted to the point that this one has, you need to shift the battlefield as the current battle is lost. Drop terms like reform, steer the argument away from public option, and refocus the battlefield to whatever your central message may be — major medical coverage for working poor, plugging the “hole in the donut” in Medicare, etc.
5. Finally, once all of this has been done, take it to the town halls