January 22, 2010

Dear Mr. President

Dear Mr. President,

Congratulations on completing your first year in office.

I know you've had a tough week.  As your trusted advertising counselor, I feel obligated to write you this memo because I think you're getting bad advice.

I know nothing about politics or policy. But I know something about human behavior. It's kinda my job. I think I know what's going wrong, and how you can fix it.

I hope you'll excuse me for talking about this in advertising terms, but it's the language I speak best.

Let's start at the beginning. There are two types of voters -- Brand Loyalists and Product Examiners. The Brand Loyalists are essentially ideologues. They will vote for a Republican regardless of how corrupt he is or a Democrat regardless of how inept he is. They don't care. They're buying the brand. We need to forget about these people. They almost never decide elections.

We need to target the Product Examiners. These are people who vote for the product, not the brand. These people almost always decide elections.

What is the product? It is the net impression of a)the individual candidate b)the candidate's beliefs and policies c)the attractiveness of those with whom the candidate hangs.

Unlike the Brand Loyalists, the Product Examiners are discerning. They liked what they saw in you. They swept you into office.  They are now abandoning you in alarming numbers. You have been reading pundits and listening to counselors about why this is happening -- and I don't think they are giving you good information.

The reason for the recent poll drops and election losses is not necessarily about health care or jobs or national security. It is about something bigger and less concrete. It is about the perception on the part of Product Examiners that your administration is wasteful and incompetent.

These people hired you because they believed that their government was in the hands of incompetent people (the firm of Bush & Co.) They expected this to change. Instead they are now feeling that they are once again in the hands of incompetents.

You have made a few large mistakes. First, you outsourced the two most important initiatives of your first year -- the economic stimulus plan and health care reform. To allow congress to drive these initiatives was terribly misguided. You let the clowns take over the circus. (It is not easy to out-arrogant Cheney and Rumsfeld, but in the eyes of Product Examiners, Reid and Pelosi have managed to do it.)

The Product Examiners viewed the economic stimulus package as a hodgepodge of special interest payoffs and gross, frivolous spending. It's difficult to explain to these people how a $246 million tax break for Hollywood movie producers to buy motion picture film is a wise use of their money. Also, spending $650 million for digital tv converter box coupons is, unfortunately, not what our target considers prudent economic stimulus.

The handling of health care reform was also pretty gnarly. The smell of ineptitude on this will be difficult to overcome. Your people controlled the White House, the Senate, and the House, and yet, after a year of doing almost nothing but health care, they still couldn't agree on a coherent program.

The House had a bill that was 2,000 pages long. Twice the size of War and Peace. Our constitution itself is only 4 pages long.

The final straw was the payoffs -- the $300 million to the Senator from Nebraska; the $100 million to Louisiana. The exemption of labor unions and government employees (two of your most loyal constituencies) from the health insurance tax seemed particularly corrupt. Reneging on your promise to "sunlight" the process was viewed by our target as evidence of further unscrupulousness.

Here's the thing. Brand Loyalists will accept this stuff. Product Examiners will not.

There are some people you need to ignore:
  • People who say the electorate is angry and they'll vote against anyone in office
  • People who want you to argue that Bush was even worse. It may well be true, but it is clearly not selling
  • People who say the Massachusetts election was local and doesn't mean much
  • People who say it was a referendum about health care
  • People who say it's only conservatives, kooks, and Tea Party-ers who are disaffected
The Product Examiners are a wide, varied, and open-minded group. They are losing confidence in the capability of your administration. You need to change this immediately or your party will suffer severe losses and you will become a premature lame duck.

Now the good news.

People still like you. I believe Product Examiners still have confidence in your personal competence.  But you need to do some things really fast:
1. Get Pelosi and Reid off television. Democratic Brand Loyalists may love them, but to our target audience they have become poison and are the new symbols of Washington wastefulness, arrogance and incompetence.

2. Get a few small things done quickly and smoothly.  Forget the big stuff for a while. Get something done! Get what done? I don't know. Like I said, policy is not my category.
3. Here's the really tough one. One more terrorist problem (like Fort Hood or Detroit) and you're done. The facts surrounding these attacks have added significant weight to the appearance of governmental incompetence (I know. Bush invented this insane intelligence labyrinth, but it doesn't matter. You own it now.) You need to simplify the system. Most important, you need to fire all the lawyers who are running these security agencies and hire cops to run them.
4. You need to quit "branding." It's great that you're such an articulate, attractive guy. But, dude, you have to stop communicating and do something (see #2, above.) Remember what I told you a while back, "you want to have a strong brand? Quit branding. A strong brand is a by-product. It comes from doing a lot of other things right."
So that's it. Shall I send my invoice via mail, or just fax it over?

Have a nice day,


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