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

Jon Ward Contributor
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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.

“A lot of events there’s nothing that really defines the message or defines where he is,” said Scott Sforza, the former television producer who went on to become President Bush’s visual maestro.

Even news photographers who cover the president every day and travel on Air Force One with Obama said, in conversations with The Daily Caller, that they often can’t remember where they are on trips, because every event looks so similar.

Obama’s trip to Savannah last week was a case in point. Although the president made stops at a community college, a local restaurant and a steel manufacturing company, his speech on energy efficiency — the only part of the day trip carried live by the TV networks — was in front of blue drapes and flags.

“In every day events it’s really helpful if you can look at a photograph or at an image on the television with the volume off and tell what the president is talking about or where he is,” Sforza said. “It gets people interested in what the president is saying. It’s what you want. You want people to hear what the president is saying and what the message is.”

As for the big events, Obama’s Cairo speech stands out to them as an enormous opportunity missed.

“The only way you knew he was not in room 450 of the Old Executive Office building was that the drape was red and not blue,” Caudill said. “How do you tell what he’s talking about when every speech is in front of blue drapes and flags? The bottom line is, the American people respond to imagery. And when that imagery is just a steady drum beat of blue drapes and flags, they’re going to stop listening at some point.”

Security was one of the reasons that Obama spoke inside an auditorium at Cairo University, White House officials said. But Obama’s advisers seem also to have preferred the more visually static setting.

“That one in all honesty, that one you do want words,” Gibbs said of the speech, which was labeled as an address to the Muslim world.

“Words, versus images, were probably more important, largely because it’s such a complex and such a big topic. I don’t think one picture alone could transmit all of the message,” Gibbs said.

Gibbs and Pfeiffer did allow that they want to do a better job of making the president look presidential.

“I will be the first to acknowledge we can do better,” Pfeiffer said. “We did too much in the White House last year, but we were tied down by having to pass economic recovery, health care, et cetera.”

“I suspect we will continue to do better as we get more used to the advantages and constraints of the presidential bully pulpit,” he said.

Gibbs added that “there are not a lot of options … within the White House.”

“It seems like every where you look you feel like … doing an event in your grandmother’s house. Every room’s got a fireplace, some old picture on the wall, a light fixture on the wall that no one actually has in real life, and a book shelf,” he said.

But Pfeiffer added that the White House will only go so far.

“We don’t want the sort of iconic shots that are pretty pictures, but seem contrived,” he said. “We think people want authenticity.”