After less than a year in office, it’s already clear that the Biden Administration will go down in history, with an emphasis on “down.”
Consider the disaster that was September: deadly chaos in Kabul, Haitian horse-whipping at the border and France recalling its ambassadors over a sneaky sub deal.
But rather than simply rub salt in a wound that becomes more gaping each day, it’s better to offer instead some time-honored public relations advice in an effort to limit the damage over the next three-plus Biden years.
That advice: No matter the subject, steadfastly fight the temptation to be overly optimistic or self-assured in predicting results. In other words, avoid wishful thinking.
There are many egregious examples of the dangers of wishful thinking. Two famous sports examples from decades ago remain relevant.
In 1999, Boston Celtics’ star Reggie Lewis collapsed during an NBA game and was diagnosed with a potentially fatal heart arrhythmia. Unhappy with the diagnosis, Lewis consulted eminent Boston cardiologist, Dr. Gilbert Mudge, who said Lewis, in fact, suffered a benign fainting disorder and would eventually be able to play basketball “without limitation.” Two weeks later, Lewis collapsed at the Celtics’ practice facility and died.
Two decades earlier, Los Angeles star Roy Campanella crashed his car on a snowy Long Island road and ended up in surgery for more than four hours. Afterward, the head of the surgical team dubbed the operation “a success” because Campanella’s spinal cord had escaped injury, opening up the possibility that the catcher might one day resume his baseball career. Roy Campanella remained a quadriplegic for the rest of his life.
In both cases, the hopefulness of physicians clouded the reality of other potential, less positive outcomes. And the physicians’ wishful thinking ultimately ruined their own distinguished reputations. This is one reason why smart public relations advisors, faced with crisis, always begin with “worst-case” scenarios.
In the same spirit of over-optimism, let’s look at the travails of the Biden administration.
First, has there ever been anyone in a position of power as dull as Secretary of State Antony Blinken? (No fair counting Homeland Secretary Mayorkas or Defense Secretary Austin!)
Blinken is a lifelong bureaucrat, generally meticulous in the bureaucratic art of talking much and saying little. He’s circumspect in his speech, careful not to extend himself to a point from which he can’t recover.
But when he spoke to Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press” first before and then after the fall of Kabul, even the ultra-cautious Blinken lapsed into misdirected “wishful thinking” rather than acknowledging failure.
In July, Secretary Blinken assured the NBC host the American departure from Afghanistan would be orderly. Said the Secretary, “I don’t think it’s going to be something that happens from a Friday to a Monday. So, I wouldn’t necessarily equate the departure of our forces in July and August or by early September with some kind of immediate deterioration in the situation.”
By September, of course, when his prediction proved disastrously wrong, Blinken’s tune with Todd had changed. He repeated the Biden talking points that the Trump Administration’s flawed agreement with the Taliban had tied the new Administration’s hands and that no one expected the Afghan army to give up so quickly. But then, he let fly yet another “wishful thinking” comment about U.S. expectations about the Taliban, which may yet come home to roost.
“The Taliban have a certain self-interest in this. They know what happened the last time they harbored a terrorist group that attacked the United States. It’s not in their self-interest to allow a repeat of that,” the Secretary said, thus inviting future Monday morning quarterbacking if/when the Taliban reopen their borders to future terrorists.
Second, there’s Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Gen. Milley, a career soldier, is immensely self-confident, articulate and political. Whereas Secretary Blinken and Milley’s ostensible “boss,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, are halting, unsteady communicators, Milley is brutally blunt.
This was on full display when the general testified before Congress in late September and gave rankled Republicans little quarter in terms of criticism. “Yes,” he said, he recommended leaving 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. “Yes,” he said, he was gladly interviewed by anti-Trump book writers. And “yes,” he said, the rushed evacuation from Kabul was a “logistical success but a strategic failure.” Gen. Milley batted back every damning advance.
But earlier, even the take-no-prisoners Milley had been guilty of one memorable slip into wishful thinking that will cost his reputation forever.
In the final September days of Kabul chaos, Milley famously labeled a U.S. drone attack that killed 10 people a “righteous strike.”
A week later, the general was made to retract his pronouncement. The drone strike, in fact, was botched, killing a family of civilians, including seven children. There was nothing virtuous or worthy or “righteous” about it. It was a tragedy. Once again, the usually-careful Gen. Milley was eternally guilty of wishful thinking.
Finally, there’s the President himself, the most guilty of letting wishful thinking cloud his thinking and sink his speech.
By now, President Biden’s ill-chosen words on Afghanistan are well-known:
“The withdrawal was an extraordinary success.”
“The troops will stay until every American who wants to be out is out.”
“The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”
Anyone who’s ever advised a leader in crisis understands that the most difficult thing to deliver is “bad news.” A leader, understandably, wants to be optimistic and confident and upbeat that “this will all turn out good in the end.”
Your job, as public relations counsel, is to encourage your client to focus instead on what we plan to do and how we plan to do it. You must disabuse him or her of “wishful thinking.”
From historic highs, Joe Biden’s approval ratings have tumbled to levels descending toward Donald Trump’s. Part of the blame lies with advisors who succumbed to the President’s wishful thinking.
Fraser P. Seitel has been a communications consultant, author and teacher for 40 years. He’s author of the Pearson text “The Practice of Public Relations,” now in its 14th edition, and co-author of “Rethinking Reputation” and “Idea Wise.” He may be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.