By Norman Solomon
The departure of White House press secretary Scott McClellan is a classic instance of ditching the pitchman in an effort to improve the image of the product.
There are no indications that the Bush administration plans to make any basic change in its product. From the Oval Office to the Pentagon to the State Department, the foreign policy approaches that have done so much to drive Bush’s domestic poll ratings to record lows this year are still in place. And the president’s timeworn domestic agenda is drawing little support.
When scarcely one-third of the country approves of the Bush product line, replacing McClellan with another marketer will make scant difference.
Under the political circumstances, McClellan wore out his welcome in the way he was supposed to—as a human lightning rod to attract the assorted frustrations, irritations and thinly veiled anger of journalists on the White House beat.
On Wednesday, when Bush greeted McClellan’s resignation by saying that he had fulfilled “a challenging assignment,” the president didn’t elaborate on why the press secretary job has been so challenging. Instead, McClellan got a pat on the back as he was shuffled out the door. (You’ve done a heck of a job, Scottie.)
When the commander in chief gives the orders, his underlings keep marching—even when they reach a cliff. Sadly, with rare exceptions, when policymakers and policy sycophants continue the journey into thin air, they don’t suffer the dire consequences. From Iraq to New Orleans to the underfunded and overburdened local governments across the United States, the impacts are felt by people who live far from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
This president is no more inclined to admit his own mistakes than he is apt to fire himself. His staff “shake-up,” widely reported in recent days, is predicated on the delusional idea that the American people don’t like this administration to the extent that they don’t understand it.
Writ large in terms of U.S. relations with the rest of the world, that sort of refrain became very loud and insistent during the months after 9/11. In American media and politics, there was a sustained outcry about the need for the United States to do a much better job of selling itself to people around the world. But Nancy Snow, a professor and author who once worked at the U.S. Information Agency, points out that “if we really want a genuine campaign to improve the image of the United States overseas, we need to begin by changing our foreign policies—the source of much antipathy.”
But the advertising mind-set is pervasive among top officials in Washington. If people aren’t buying, improve the pitch. In late 2001, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed much enthusiasm for a new hire—Charlotte Beers, who was deemed eminently qualified to run the U.S. government’s “public diplomacy” operation on the strength of her acclaimed record as chief executive of two top-flight advertising agencies, J. Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather.
“She got me to buy Uncle Ben’s rice,” Powell told the public. “So there is nothing wrong with getting somebody who knows how to sell something.”
For her part, Beers voiced pleasure at her new job. “It is almost as though we have to redefine what America is,” she said, adding: “This is the most sophisticated brand assignment I have ever had.”
But is selling Uncle Ben’s rice really akin to selling Uncle Sam’s policies?
At first glance, such comparisons seem to undermine the claims of sophistication that come from high government officials. But in any country with significant elements of democracy, governance and sales are closely related. If most people “buy” the line, they’re apt to provide enough votes to keep officials in office.
Yet those who live by the public relations sword are apt to discover its double edge. In the long run, even the most dynamic advertising campaign or public relations strategy must still reckon with the quality of the product.
No matter how uplifting the PR package, the U.S. war effort in Iraq has not been able to avoid running aground—as far as most Iraqis and most Americans are concerned. Deceptive marketing practices can’t change reality.
Likewise, a new face and style at the podium in the White House briefing room can’t do much for the media image of the Bush administration. At this point, the carefully crafted sound bites have very limited impact. A shift in the nation’s political dynamics will have to come from elsewhere if the presidency of George W. Bush is going to regain its political momentum.