Is Obama Too Bright To Be President?

By John TantilloMarketing Expert/Founder and President, Marketing Department of America

More Roosevelt... Less Jimmy Carter... that's what this brand needs!

Folks, there's been a lot of scrutiny of President Obama in these first 100 days. It goes with the territory. The attention is brutal no matter who's in the Oval Office and it always will be.

In the last week and a half, Obama's said and done things and appeared in ways that could lay the foundation for a negative brand image that no one will be able to reverse.

That is why, Barack Obama --whom I've called a first-rate poli-marketer (see the past few weeks FOX Forum posts here)-- had better stop behaving like Jimmy Carter and start emulating Roosevelt.

In the last week and a half, he's said and done things and appeared in ways that could lay the foundation for a negative brand image that no one will be able to reverse.

I can hear the peanut gallery objecting: "But President Obama isn't oozing Carter-sque doom and gloom." Fair enough. But he's oozing something worse: he's oozing too much intelligence.

Yes, too muchintelligence. Intelligence is not a bad thing, but a president should never put too much of it on display.

Jimmy Carter's mistake wasn't really the doom and gloom, it was his professorial, uber-competence and his legendary micro-managing. The doom and gloom was an inevitable product of his putting too much intelligence on display.

Basically, it was his publicly-aired honesty and wandering intellect that got him into trouble. These traits obscured the sacred/universal qualities of the presidency and the need for strongly directed leadership. It actually diminished the presidency in the electorates' eyes.

Instead of seeing assured leadership, the American people saw Hamlet -- a bright guy constantly re-evaluating and refining his positions (something that presidents and all other effective leaders should basically do behind closed doors and well out of sight). Bottom line: Lincoln delivered The Gettysburg Address from a podium, he didn't do his famously complicated brooding there.

Americans like to know their presidents are bright; they just don't need to be part of the intellectual rollercoaster that comes from being bright. And they don't want details, they want results.

Most of all, American's want a president who instills confidence. When I heard that President Obama was considering planting a vegetable garden at the White House I became worried -- this was classic Carter. Do something wonky that seems to fit with an important issue the president values (i.e., the environment) but actually comes across as a little too makeshift and nitty gritty for the President of the United States. Remember how the press turned Jimmy Carter into a peanut farmer? Enough said. President Obama, forget the vegetable garden.

And beyond vegetable gardens, watch out that you don't appear to be micro-managing the GM situation. Wagoner's departure might be necessary, but avoid looking as if you now want to run the auto industry down to its most minute details --a President offering warranties on cars is something I simply never thought I'd hear.

The additional problem with appearing too intelligent is that when policies and initiatives go wrong as they inevitably will in Washington, it begins to look like your high intelligence (read, tendency to waffle) is responsible for your legislative and policy failures. In other words, the whole presidential package gets poisoned.

Last week's press conference only served to emphasize our professorial president.

President Obama answered a wide-range of questions with minute detail. Bravo. But did he instill confidence in his leadership in his Target Market, the American people?

I doubt it, since after the event even The New York Times called him a lecturer and noted that he has a kind of intellectual distance that might make it hard for people to really embrace.

And while I applaud the Leno appearance as a bold poli-marketing attempt to reach the Target Market in new ways (see my post on that here), I don't think those kinds of appearances are the answer either because they run the risk of exposing more negatives about the president (witness his Special Olympics gaffe).

Let's face it, a president should probably be rarely heard and seen and then only strategically. There's a reason why the Wizard of Oz stayed behind his curtain. There is something about the office of the presidency that just doesn't do well with too much accessibility and too much of a human touch. Ronald Reagan understood this and played the presidency with the right doses of warmth, balance and gravitas.

But it's not Reagan who President Obama should take a page from. Obama is a crisis president and one crisis president should follow the lead of another: FDR.

So how did Roosevelt strike a balance?

Two words: Fireside chats. Roosevelt's fireside chats let the people in, but just enough and only to show what he wanted to show. The people knew he was bright, but they didn't want or need to hear all the backroom deliberations and wavering. Most important, they came away comforted because they knew Roosevelt was in charge.

In contrast, the Leno appearance forced President Obama to share his brand with a famous comedian (another brand) and by extension the many celebrities who have occupied the guest chairs. It risked diluting his brand and exposed him to boot, but it didn't do anything to make him appear presidential or seem to be confidently leading us. Yes, folks, less really is more.

Apparently, President Obama tried to do some confidence instilling at his Internet-based town hall meeting -again, he earns points for the dynamic poli-marketing, but needs to be cautious because there is too much room for error and over-exposure (again, it's not-Rooseveltian).

At the end of his press conference last week, President Obama likened America to a huge ship that can't be turned around on a dime. Things will take time, he conveyed. Now this was Roosevelt, the master of lowering expectations while instilling hope.

President Obama should apply his ship example to his presidency. A presidential brand can go in either a good or bad direction. It does this gradually, mistakes or triumphs gradually mounting up. If the negatives are not kept firmly in check from the beginning, a toxic image can be created that might never be erased.

No president wants this and now's the time for President Obama to make some course corrections and stick to them.

And remember, it's always easier to understand politics (and almost everything else in life) when you keep marketing and branding in mind.

John Tantillo is founder and president of Marketing Department of America.

John Tantillo is branding editor for Fridge Magazine, the magazine for small business owners and entrepreneurs. He is the author of "People Buy Brands, Not Companies."