The Marketer in Chief

"Oftentimes what I try to say in Washington gets filtered, and sometimes my words don't exactly translate directly to the people. So I've found it's best to travel the country. I'm coming in from Billings, Mont., [where] we had about 12,000 people show up last night to hear . . . about what tax relief means and [what] common sense budgeting will do for our nation."
-President George W. Bush,
Kalamazoo, Mich., March 27, 2001

In April, on the third day of the spy plane impasse with China, the White House sought to cool tensions by projecting a business-as-usual image. For President Bush, that meant going ahead with a previously scheduled trip to the H. Fletcher Brown Boys and Girls Club in Wilmington, Del., where he posed for photos with students working on computers and addressed local dignitaries about education and faith-based service programs.

Similarly, when word came that the crew of the spy plane was heading home after being held in China for 11 days, the commander in chief was traveling in North Carolina to pitch his educational policies at a middle school in Charlotte and at East Carolina University in Greenville.

As those incidents suggest, managing the nation's business while away from the White House has become standard procedure for a modern President. Indeed, during Bush's first 100 days in office, he spent roughly 30 days on the road visiting 23 states and two foreign countries. His peripatetic schedule also illustrates the extent to which Presidents increasingly serve as traveling salesmen for their policies, using carefully choreographed photo opportunities and scripted-for-television sound bites.

"If you are campaigning for your tax bill, you don't go across town to talk to Congress, you go to Ashtabula and have an event that gets local media attention" as well as coverage by the traveling White House press corps, says Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar and an aide in the Eisenhower and Nixon White Houses. Hess, in an interview with Government Executive, said it is inconceivable that his former bosses would have acceded to demands by their schedulers that they make frequent trips to sit down with grade schoolers and other photogenic audiences to build support for their policy proposals.

The art of presidential communications has changed dramatically since the days when Franklin Roosevelt pioneered the political use of radio with his "fireside chats." Convinced that the medium would have greater impact if used only sparingly, Roosevelt limited himself to just four radio chats in his first year in office and then cut back to two a year until World War II broke out.

Before television networks began to insist that the White House serve as a daily backdrop for national news stories, many important issues were dealt with and explained to the public by the agencies responsible for them. "When I came into the White House under Eisenhower, probably only two or three things a year were really 'presidentialized,'" Hess recalls. "If it was an agricultural bill, for example, it was handled at the Department of Agriculture by [Secretary] Ezra Taft Benson."

But television has not just influenced where news stories about the government are reported, it has influenced how they are reported. In The Permanent Campaign and Its Future, (American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and the Brookings Institution, 2000), Hess writes that, by the early 1980s, "Presidents framed their legislative initiatives, and journalists framed their coverage, in campaign terms and used the same tools and techniques that they had been perfecting since the late 1960s. . . . An immensely complicated issue was often reduced in the press to an exposition of competing strategies."

As television became the dominant press medium and all-news channels clamored to be fed around the clock, the White House adjusted to different demands-and opportunities. The casting of the President as television celebrity and "marketer in chief" of his administration's agenda began in earnest with Ronald Reagan and was perfected by Bill Clinton.

"A lot of it owes to the genius of Mike Deaver, who thought in visual terms" when staging White House pronouncements, and who advocated strict adherence to a chosen "line of the day," Hess says, referring to the public relations guru who served as Reagan's deputy chief of staff. Bush's advisers have "learned from Reagan and Deaver that if it's Week 1, it must be education reform, if it's Week 2, it must be faith-based organizations, and so forth," he explains. Hess says the concept of the President as a traveling salesman "disturbs me in lots of ways because you'd like to think you are paying the President to mind the store."

But he also gives Bush credit for using "the tools at hand in our media-drenched society."


Dick Kirschten is a contributing editor for National Journal. Contact him at dkirschten@govexec.com.
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