Obama summer messaging dominated by economy and midterms, with health care nowhere to be seen

Jon Ward Contributor
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The White House message is an obsessed-over phenomenon in the age of spin, crafted carefully by a president and his advisers because of its influence over the course of the news cycle.

Much has been said about the way that White House messaging has had to adapt to a rapidly changing news environment, where daily cycles were long ago obliterated and have been replaced with something more akin to a tumble dry.

Not often, however, is an administration’s daily communication analyzed over a period of time to gain an appreciation for patterns and themes. So The Daily Caller looked back at the White House “message of the day” over the summer of 2010.

Here’s what we found: there are some grounds for criticism from some Democrats who have been critical of President Obama’s messaging, saying it has lacked discipline and simplicity. Over the 53 days where the White House had a message to drive, there were 17 different topics that comprised the main theme of the day. On 18 of those days, there were two or three different messages that the White House was promoting instead of just one.

“The Obama communications department has usually done an excellent job. But I wish they would keep it simple,” said Lanny Davis, a former White House special counsel to President Bill Clinton and Washington power broker.

Even David Axelrod, a top adviser to the president, told Vanity Fair recently: “The whole town is kind of in the thrall, in the grips, of A.D.D. It’s hard to keep anyone’s attention focused on anything, and everything is judged through the prism of what this means for the election next November.”

Notably, the Obama administration was basically silent – with no message to drive – only once on a weekday this summer when the president was at the White House. That came last Thursday, Aug. 12, when Obama’s schedule showed only a few meetings with staff before noon.

The study also reveals what the White House has been eager to talk about, what it has tried to avoid, and what Obama has had to talk about whether he liked it or not.

Obama, unsurprisingly, has made the economy his sole or partial focus on 15 of his 53 message days (which includes Tuesday and Wednesday of this week).

But the second-most popular theme of his choosing this summer was the midterm elections. The president did not make his first speech that focused on persuading voters to vote Democratic in the November elections until June 30, but since then has done so a total of 10 times. All three days this week, until he goes to Martha’s Vineyard on Thursday, Obama is raising money and giving hard-hitting campaign speeches in five states.

The most glaring omission from Obama’s messaging is the health care bill that passed Congress in March. Although Obama and congressional Democrats promised to vigorously defend the bill as they headed toward midterm elections, he has only made health care the focus on two of his 53 summer messaging days. The last time he did so was on June 22.

Obama said at the time of the bill’s passage that he was looking forward to debating Republicans – who have said they want to repeal the law – about the merits of the health care overhaul.

“If they want to have a fight, I welcome that fight,” he said in Maine a week after the bill passed. “I’m happy to have that argument.”

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico clearly dominated much of the summer, especially June. The spill was Obama’s main focus on 13 different days, eight of them coming in the first half of June.

And although the White House deemed it “Recovery Summer,” Obama focused on the stimulus specifically only five times. Vice President Joe Biden briefed the White House press corps June 17 to kick off the six week period that the administration said would comprise the “Recovery Summer.”

Besides a smattering of days where visits with foreign leaders moved the focus to foreign policy, most of the summer was spent on domestic policy. Immigration was the main issue for Obama on five occasions, education moved to the center three times, and the president even made two trips to the Rust Belt this month to promote the bailout of Chrysler and General Motors.

Notably absent from his emphasis was spending. The president made government spending the issue of the day just once, when signing improper payments elimination legislation on July 22.

Davis, who has been one of several major Democratic voices clamoring for more message simplicity from the Obama White House, said that the smorgasbord of themes produced too much clutter.

“Instead of one message a day, I would recommend just two messages that are repeated every day from now on,” he said.

“One, this president and his administration is focused on jobs and the economy, period. President Obama has done his best to re-ignite the economy and create new jobs under what most Americans would regard as very difficult circumstances that he inherited,” Davis said. “Two, the president once again asks the Republicans to join him in taking a time-out on partisan politics and find compromises. He is willing accept conservative, business-friendly ideas to create new jobs — and hopes, in return, Republicans can accept immediate assistance to the unemployed and low-income people who are most in need. This is the bipartisan approach that most Americans want.”

One caveat to the DC’s count is the fact that there is an overlap between several themes. Some might lump jobs, stimulus and the auto bailout, among other issues, all under the economy heading. Or they might group them together under a completely different category. But there is enough to distinguish each theme from the others that each was counted separately.

Additionally, capturing the White House message of the day is not intended to be a full representation of what dominated the news every day. Some weeks, like when Shirley Sherrod was the only story from July 19 to July 23, are completely dominated by a news cycle that is totally outside the administration’s control and preference. But even then, the White House is trying to push through the noise to get their own message out. And at the end of that week, Obama tried to refocus the narrative back on his accomplishments.

Here is the breakdown by day of Obama’s message this summer. The cumulative results per category are at the bottom:

Days with more than one message: 18

FOREIGN POLICY (excluding Afghanistan and Iraq): 6
HEALTH CARE: 2 (none since June 22)

JUNE – 26 message days
June 1: OIL SPILL → statement on BP after meeting with commission co-chairs
June 2: ECONOMY → speech at Carnegie Mellon
June 3: IMMIGRATION → meeting with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer
June 4: JOBS/OIL SPILL → remarks at truck parts supplier/trip to Gulf
June 5: NATIONAL SECURITY → Announcement of DNI James Clapper
June 6: Sunday
June 7: OIL SPILL/EDUCATION → meeting with cabinet re spill/speech in Michigan on Race to Top
June 8: HEALTH CARE → event with seniors in Wheaton, Md
June 9: MIDDLE EAST → meeting with PA President Abbas
June 10: OIL SPILL/ECONOMY → meeting with bipartisan congressional leaders
June 11: JOBS → meeting with small business owners at White House
June 12: OIL SPILL → phone call with British PM Cameron
June 13: Sunday
June 14: OIL SPILL → fourth trip to Gulf (Miss and Ala) overnight stay
June 15: OIL SPILL → trip to Fla coast
June 16: OIL SPILL → meeting with BP execs at White House, $20 billion fund announced
June 17: STIMULUS → Biden briefs press on launch of “Recovery Summer”
June 18: STIMULUS → Speech in Ohio to tout construction project
June 19: Saturday
June 20: Sunday
June 21: SOCIETY → fatherhood event at white house
June 22: HEALTH CARE → white house remarks following meeting with state insurance commissioners and insurers
June 23: AFGHANISTAN → replacement of Gen. McChrystal with Gen. Petraeus following meeting with national security team
June 24: RUSSIA → bilat with Russian President Medvedev, press conference
June 25: ECONOMY → travel to Canada for G8/G20
June 26: ECONOMY → meetings for G8/G20
June 27: ECONOMY → meetings for G8/G20
June 28: IMMIGRATION → meeting with activists at White House
June 29: ENERGY/IMMIGRATION/ECONOMY → meeting with senators on Energy/meeting with Hispanic lawmakers/meeting with Fed Chairman Bernanke (pool spray)
June 30: ECONOMY/MIDTERMS → town hall in Racine, WI

JULY – 22 message days
July 1: IMMIGRATION → speech at American University
July 2: JOBS/STIMULUS → comments on jobs report and stimulus announcement
July 3: Saturday
July 4: Sunday holiday
July 5: IRAQ – Biden trip to Iraq
July 6: MIDDLE EAST → Oval bilat, presser with Israeli PM Netanyahu
July 7: JOBS → export speech at White House
July 8: STIMULUS/MIDTERMS → speech at electric truck factory in Kansas City/fundraisers for Robin Carnahan in MO and Harry Reid in NV
July 9: ECONOMY – speech in Nevada
July 10: Saturday
July 11: Sunday
July 12: OIL SPILL → Michelle Obama makes first trip to Gulf
July 13: ECONOMY → announcement of Jack Lew to replace Budget Director Orszag; meeting with Dem lawmakers to discuss Finreg, extenders
July 14: ECONOMY → meeting with Warren Buffett; meeting with Bill Clinton and business leaders
July 15: STIMULUS → speech at battery plant in Holland, MI
July 16: OIL SPILL → remarks on capping of the well
July 17: trip to Maine
July 18: trip to Maine
July 19: ECONOMY → remarks in Rose Garden calling on Congress to extend unemployment insurance (after vote was assured)
July 20: OIL SPILL/GREAT BRITAIN → bilat with PM Cameron, East Room press conference
July 21: ECONOMY → signing of financial regulation bill
July 22: SPENDING → signing of improper payments elimination legislation
July 23: ECONOMY → statement from Roosevelt Room trying to draw attention to accomplishments after Shirley Sherrod fiasco
July 24: Saturday
July 25: Sunday
July 26: CAMPAIGN FINANCE → statement on DISCLOSE Act
July 27: JOBS → comments after meeting with bipartisan congressional leaders
July 28: JOBS/MIDTERMS → remarks on small business legislation in New Jersey/two DNC fundraisers in NYC
July 29: EDUCATION/AFGHANISTAN/MIDTERMS → Urban League speech/meeting with national security team/DNC fundraiser
*End of “Recovery Summer”
July 30: AUTO BAILOUT → visits to Chrysler and GM plants in Michigan
July 31: Saturday

AUGUST – 15 message days
Aug 1: Sunday
Aug 2: IRAQ → speech to Disabled American Veterans in Atlanta
Aug 3: AFRICA → White House town hall with young African leaders
Aug 5: AUTO BAILOUT/MIDTERMS → speech at Ford plant in Chicago/fundraisers for Alexi Giannoulias and DNC
Aug 6: JOBS → comments on jobs report at sign company in DC
Aug 7: Saturday
Aug 8: Sunday
Aug 9: EDUCATION/MIDTERMS → Education speech at University of Texas/DNC AND DSSC fundraisers in Texas
Aug 10: JOBS → statement urging Congress to pass $26 billion for teacher jobs (after vote was assured)
Aug 11: IRAQ → meeting with national security team
Aug 12: SILENCE → no message of the day
Aug 13: IMMIGRATION/GROUND ZERO MOSQUE → signing of southwest border security bill & DHS Secretary Napolitano at briefing/remarks at Ramadan dinner
Aug 14: GROUND ZERO MOSQUE/OIL SPILL → clarification of mosque comments/family vacation in Gulf
Aug 15: OIL SPILL → family vacation in Gulf
Aug 16: STIMULUS/MIDTERMS → speech at energy firm in Wisconsin/fundraisers for Tom Barrett and state Democratic party/fundraiser for DCCC in Los Angeles
Aug 17: JOBS/MIDTERMS → speech on jobs in Seattle/fundraisers for Patty Murray on day of primary election
Aug 18: ECONOMY/MIDTERMS → speech on economy in Ohio/fundraisers for Gov. Ted Strickland and state Democratic party/fundraiser in Florida for state Democrats
Aug 19: off to Martha’s Vineyard

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