Published September 06, 2013
I realize the last thing the White House wants from me is communications advice. And, goodness knows, President Obama has plenty of advisers all weighing in on the public relations push to get Congress (and the American people) to support an intervention in Syria.
Yet, there’s something about the administration’s messaging that has been striking a discordant note to my ears. I’m not sure that they understand what I, and many of the people they need to convince, are hearing.
Regardless of whether one is for or against a Syria strike, the onus is on the president to make his case convincingly.
Over the course of this past week, the arguments against a military intervention in Syria seem to be winning the debate.
To try to turn that tide, the White House has had President Obama speak publicly on several occasions during his trip to the G-20 meeting in Russia.
Unfortunately for the president’s advisers, the more Obama speaks, the more uneasy people seem to get.
That’s when a communications team needs to pull back and ask themselves, “why?”
In my opinion, Mr. Obama is presenting his case incorrectly. He has the order and the emphasis wrong when laying out his arguments in favor of a strike. He’s been putting too much stress on the limited point, that the intervention will be limited, targeted and over before you know it.
Instead, he should first argue that a strike is necessary. Then he should tell us why he thinks we will succeed. And only then should he get to the point that a strike is not going to become a long-term or costly endeavor.
The more the president keeps jumping to, and spending too much time on, the limited aspect of the strike, the more he’s taking for granted that he’s already won the argument on the first two points. And clearly he has not.
This is a common situation with political leaders – their words often reflect the mindset of their party, and in this case limited seems more important than anything else, even efficacy.
The Democrats started asking what the limits would be on military action even before they ask whether it will be successful.
The thing is, President Obama didn’t initially need to win over the Democrats – he could have had their support with a minimal effort from the White House.
By focusing on the far-left echo chamber he alienated the rest of the nation, so that with every communication from the White House about a Syria strike the gap has grown between what the administration plans to do and what they are doing that won’t get, as one U.S. official said, “mocked.”
If the president has any hopes of getting the votes he needs in Congress, and winning in the court of public opinion, here’s what he must do to win the argument:
1. Tell American the strike is necessary and here's why.
2. Let Americans know we can succeed, and here's why.
3. Promise the strike wilI be limited, and here's how.
If the White House decides that President Obama should make his case Tuesday in a prime time address, he could still change course and use this construction.
All that said, it may still be too late.