Obama emphasis on words over images questioned by former White House communications gurus

President Obama has made much of the fact that he wants to be a transformative president like Ronald Reagan. But in at least one way he is the anti-Reagan: his intentional avoidance of iconic presidential imagery.

The Obama White House has purposely avoided trying to cast the president in larger-than-life visual moments, eschewing the Hollywood-quality image-making that began with Reagan and was steadily improved under presidents Bush 41, Clinton and Bush 43.

There is a strong disagreement, between Obama’s top advisers and the men who made the last two presidents look good, over whether this is a wise decision. The criticisms from the small and select community of past image-shapers, in interviews with The Daily Caller, imply that Obama may have had an easier time selling health-care reform if he had done things the way they did.

The Obama team’s disregard for big pictures — Bush in front of the Statue of Liberty on the first anniversary of 9/11, Clinton visiting a refugee camp in Macedonia during the Balkan war, Reagan looking over the wall into the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea — is part of the current administration’s scorn for things as they have traditionally been done, which they typically lump into the category of “politics as usual.”

“We don’t want to participate in the artifice of politics that have turned so many people off,” Dan Pfeiffer, White House director of communications, told The Daily Caller. “Great images are important but they should be believable to people who did not study at the knee of [Reagan image-maker] Michael Deaver.”

There is also a strong preference in the Obama White House for words rather than images as a persuasive tool.

“I don’t think we devalue images but I think there have been times in which … the president’s viewpoint is, ‘You may not agree with what I’m doing, but you at least will have a better understanding for why if I can explain to you why I’m doing this,’” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

“So in that way I do think he does put value on the words, on the explanation of what the policy is,” Gibbs said, during an interview in his West Wing office.

This attempt to “elevate the dialogue” is admirable in its intent to improve political discourse. But it will give fuel to critics who say Obama thinks he knows best and can win others over if he can just explain everything to them.

There is another element. While the Obama White House is similar to the Bush White House in its message discipline, its dismissal of big images is part of its determination to avoid the mistakes of the previous administration.

Pfeiffer said that ever since Deaver elevated the importance of shaping and controlling the president’s image, each White House has “been engaged in a game of one-upmanship for the best possible picture ever.”

“Engaging in that game is how you end up landing on an aircraft carrier with a ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner. I bet there were a lot of high fives that day and not many since,” Pfeiffer said, referring to President George W. Bush’s piloting a fighter jet onto the USS Lincoln in 2003 to announce the end of combat operations in Iraq.

Past image-makers say the Obama White House is missing the point and has created a tension between words and images that should not exist. The pictures accentuate and amplify the words, they say. Good pictures get people to listen.

“It’s that miscalculation on their part — that by not focusing on the big visuals he’s going to look like they’re not really concerned about form, they’re more concerned about substance — when in fact, it’s form that helps you sell your substance,” said George Caudill, who was visual communications adviser to President Clinton during his second term.

“The miscalculation here is that the American people want, the American people demand, produced situational platforms — it’s the means by which we see our president as something more than a mere mortal, and is the basis of how the world views us,” Caudill said.

Greg Jenkins, a top advance man for President Bush who was a TV producer, said that “visual communication is not a matter of aesthetics — it is sophisticated messaging.”

The criticisms from past White House visual producers are two-pronged. For one, stirring images of Obama at big events — like the ones from his speeches on the presidential campaign, or from his speech in Berlin in 2008 — have been too few and far between as president, they said. Obama’s speech in Prague a year ago is one exception, where the White House advance team set up a stunning event.

More importantly, they said, the president’s every day governance has turned into a mind-numbing repetition of identical-looking town halls and speeches in front of blue drapes and flags.

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  • spr8er

    Not trying to cast him as larger than life?Almost every photo has him with his face tilted up at a thirty degree angle,how divine.The prop doctors mentioned here were so staged it was funny.The beer in the rose garden to show us he can be just as quaint as us regular joe’s.It really doesn’t matter what the white house does or doesn’t do on this issue,there are hundreds in the main stream media who will cast him as the messiah.We had two days coverage of him eating a cheeseburger,another two days of him killing a fly.No mere mortal could get such favorable coverage.

  • windrdr

    Former fighter pilot in the cockpit of a relatively high performance aircraft with access to the controls, but he didn’t get any stick time. Yeah, keep telling yourself that one, and insist upon misunderestimation, yet again.

  • independentvoter

    And??? he also stood at a certain place on the border to make it look like there was a complete fence and he usually had federal employees standing with him in the photo opts.. Now compare that to the chosen one.. and what do you get? BUSH JR. with a bigger ego.. some CHANGE there…

  • mallard

    For someone who campaigned as being “with-it” and media savvy, Obama has missed opportunities to grab the public. Remember Kennedy stating that by the end of the decade, the country should be able to send a man to the moon and return him safely? He had a big vision and an ability to boil it down to a compelling simple message. Obama has a big (socialistic) vision, but he has failed to deliver it in a simple compact core message. Likewise, his failure to use visuals to reinforce that message means that Americans don’t have a clear grasp of what he is doing. Because he has not controlled the message, he is losing to those that will.

    This is really basic marketing. Even politicians have to sell their visions and their legislation. Look at the GOP pols that attended the health care “summit.” They brought along a copy of the 2,000 page bill and kept referencing it during their comments. Good visual to show the people what a monstrosity the legislation is.

    Obama has never worked in the private market. I wonder if all these concepts are foreign to him. I suppose in academia it mostly about words.

    Well, champ, you need to see how those of us in a multi-media culture digest information. You are 5 steps behind already. Frankly I don’t care if you ever figure it out. But, since we aren’t as sophisticated like you, we’ll have to “come up to your level,” I guess, since you won’t deign to stoop to ours. Good luck with that.