Robert Gibbs, president Obama’s former press secretary, spoke to the Council of PR Firms today at its Critical Issues Forum. It was an interesting talk. Here is my takeaway.
Gibbs with Obama in a White House photo from February.
Gibbs said most discussions in the White House are about communications rather than policy. The wishful thinking: if only we could communicate our strategy better, then media reports about being bogged down in Afghanistan would vanish into thin air.
But after reading newspaper reports about Afghanistan, Gibbs the Realist would ask staffers if they had “any tips” about doling out the good news from the Afghan front. He met a wall of silence. The lesson: action always speaks louder than words.
Gibbs voiced irritation about the constant media focus on conflict and process. The press secretary of 25 months was always bemused when a member of the White House press corps would ask, “How come Team Obama is failing to pitch the merits of heath reform to the American people?"
In Gibbs’ view, the administration did talk about pluses of expanding coverage to more than 40M uninsured people. That message was largely ignored. The proof: Gibbs said forty-one percent of the healthcare-related stories were about the process of passing the bill and political infighting, rather than the good things in store for Americans once the new law starts kicking in less than two years from now.
On a rainy morning, Gibbs said the political climate in D.C. is as “dreary” as the weather outside. Polls show the Congressional approval rating is in the single-digit range. That low ranking has Gibbs scrambling to revise his “how bad things are benchmark.” He used to think things are bad when an approval rating dropped below the legal drinking age. That was replaced by the age to get into a PG-13 rating movie.
Gibbs will have to come up with another measurement. How about the minimum age required to enter kindergarten? Can 95 percent of Americans really disapprove of Congress? With Republicans in charge of the House, that’s a no-brainer.
Gibbs spoke about the national “frustration and anxiety” that spawned Operation Wall Street. That frustration and anxiety didn’t just begin during financial crisis of 2008 when banks moved to the brink because of lax oversight and massive greed. It’s been a 30-year process, according to Gibbs, reaching its high or low point during the last decade when median household income declined for the first time since the Great Depression. Gibbs noted the hardship of a parent paying a 2011 college tuition with an adjusted income of what he/she earned in 1999. And for what? The job outlook looks bleak. What is the financial return on a four-year private college investment that easily tops $225K?
Meanwhile, globalization and trade have hollowed out huge swaths of industrial U.S. Millions of Americans, according to Gibbs, are clueless about how global commerce results in lower-priced goods. But they do know that the jobs they used to have in the washing machine factory have been shipped to Mexico, and the iPad wanted by their kid is made in China. Globalization sure sounds great in theory. It’s a bust for many.
Gibbs scoffed at haughty critics of Occupied Wall Street, who dismiss the protestors because don’t have an agenda. Their agenda is simple: change has got to come. Gibbs believes U.S. society is severely out-of-whack when income for those at the top one percent level triples over the last 30 years and rises 16 percent for those in the middle. The ex-press secretary says the spirit of those protesting at New York’s Liberty Plaza (Zucchotti Park) is shared by millions of “figurative” Occupiers throughout the U.S. and world. Gibbs noted that the recent demonstration in Israel, which was the largest there in 20 years, concerned economic conditions, not their neighboring countries.
Gibbs did made a dark confession. Since exiting the White House, he’s a good buddy of Dubya’s brain and Wall Street Journal columnist, Karl Rove. “Two years ago, we would have argued about the color of the sky,” said Gibbs. Now out of camera range, Gibbs and Rove agree on quite a few issues. It's too bad Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill can’t do the same. A suggestion: a joint Gibbs/Rove plea to Congress to stop the petty political nonsense. We all should be in it together.
Gibbs was invited by CapStrat CEO Ken Eudy, who was executive director of North Carolina Democratic Party. Good “get,” Ken.