A quick study of Barack Obama’s PR — From storytelling to ‘Between Two Ferns’
In early 2007 when a young senator from Illinois beat Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primaries, my cook in India assumed that he became the president of the United States. Such was the fanfare and aura around Barack Obama, many didn’t know who the president of India was, but the name Obama was common knowledge. His journey from 2008–2016 is a compelling study in the simplicity of storytelling.
The president’s slogan of “Change” resonated across the world after the colossal mess that he inherited from George Bush. Yet, the very storytelling machinery that elected him twice over has failed to convey ‘what’ the president has really done. In the past 9-years of Obama’s epochal reign, his most sweeping ‘changes’ have not been communicated with the similar gusto of his campaigns.
The most notable failure is the 900-page legislation, “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” (ACA henceforth). Here’s a piece of legislation so historic in value, history will judge the president on this one change. The bill aims to impact the millions of underprivileged people by providing free healthcare, yet it remains shrouded in mystery and complexity.
The Republicans derisively call the legislation as ‘Obamacare,’ and surveys state that many in the U.S. have no idea what the act does and how it benefits them. A Jimmy Kimmel interview hilariously showed that Americans opposed Obamacare but heaped praises on ACA, when the two were the same. A CNBC survey found that 46 percent of Americans oppose Obamacare, yet only 37% oppose the Affordable Care Act. Again, both are the same.
Education. College fees and expenses are so high in America, BuzzFeed ran a post on how you can buy islands instead of getting a degree from the New York University. Student loan debts in the US are more than $1.3 trillion, the highest in the world by any stretch of the imagination. The president signed an amendment to the Health Care law that also affected education. Its core purpose was to shift the burgeoning student debt from the students to the taxpayers.
These two important pieces of legislation are seldom spoken about or appreciated. He’s the first president to speak openly for gay rights, (the one portion I thought was well communicated to the world considering its sensitivity and scale) reducing our carbon footprint, signed off on a range of financial changes, brought about closer relations between the West and other countries, increased the number of job opportunities etc…
There are a number of misses as well like the frosty relations with Putin. But from a Public Relations’ point of view, a number of his wins remain opaque. It was in this context that the president of the United States attended Jack Galifianakis’ ‘Between Two Ferns’. He wanted to control the narrative, dumb down healthcare.gov after all the bad press it garnered. Did it do enough? Not really. But the president’s office wanted to reach out to its people and explain his achievements.
The perception of Barack Obama is still positive world over. Speaking out for gay rights alone won him a lot of good karma. (It’s the 21st century for crying out loud) But how many really know of his most consequential pieces of legislation that are likely touch the millions of Americans and billions around the world? That calls for a bigger study and a closer analysis. While Obama’s campaign was simple, his office has largely fallen short of communicating his biggest achievements. And that’s precisely why the world needs its storytellers, even in the highest offices.