Hey, GOP, You've Got It All Wrong -- Obama Is NOT a Celebrity

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

There is a reason for my mom's old warning "Don't discuss politics or religion at the dinner table." Emotions run high and are likely to get out of control.

Too much emotion is at the core of the Republican problem.

It used to be that liberals were seen as the overly emotional ones and conservatives the ones most able to moderate their emotion with reason and balanced argument. The late Bill Buckley was famous for having strong convictions but tempering them with humor and civility.


The GOP cannot simply rely on a "closed-club" wink, wink, nudge, nudge you-either-get-us-and-what-we're-about-or-you-don't-approach --that's the emotional approach. You feel good because you and your like-minded peers all "understand" and identify with each other --but you lose at the polls because, ultimately, even though you say you want to win, you don't really care as long as you're sure you're in the right and have a small cadre that confirms this.

That sad approach will lead to deflating the Grand Old Party's big tent and setting up in its place a few pup tents featuring the side show freaks.

And by all means the GOP needs to avoid confusing Rush Limbaugh's Target Market for its own Target Market. They're very different.

Limbaugh knows that his Target Market is the wink-wink, nudge-nudge conservative. The embattled conservative. The conservative who can thrive out of power because being out of power only confirms the view that he or she is right.

The GOP's Target Market, on the other hand, is the entire electorate --every single American even those hard-to-reach-Libs-- and its aim is to convince as many people as possible that it is the party to join so that it will have the numbers to actually win elections and push a legislative agenda.

Bottom line: if the GOP wants to become a viable opposition they have got to control the emotion, contain the non-winning elements within, and start seeing themselves and, even more importantly, their opposition for what it is.

The biggest error that many in the Grand Old Party are making is about President Obama. Namely, they view him as a celebrity. That's wrongheaded thinking. That's emotion talking and it's a costly misperception.

It's easy to belittle President Obama as a celebrity who rode a wave of crowd-intoxicating charisma all the way to the White House, but even if this were true, such a vision does nothing to help the GOP out of its current crisis. You can't defeat the opposition if you misjudge, mischaracterize and underestimate it.

Fact is, Barack Obama did not become President because he was a celebrity. He became president because he is an effective, articulate, inspiring political leader who made an argument for a particular vision of government and the United States that people liked and bought.

A celebrity sweeps people up in his charisma, but celebrity status is limiting. We do not expect a Madonna or even the prodigiously talented and bright Oprah Winfrey to be able to address knotty political and economic problems with a sense of universal leadership and credibility that convinces and moves people to make change --but that is exactly what Obama has done.

Obama tackled crisis after crisis in his first hundred days and on the campaign trail. The Reverend Wright blowup could have sunk his candidacy, but instead through a clear and effective speech on race relations, he turned everything around. He relied on the American people to listen to his argument and accept it.

I can hear the peanut gallery now: that was just speechifying... So was the Gettysburg Address.

Statements from leaders matter because they can deliver a vision that can animate an entire people. Speeches change history. They remind people what they believe in or should believe in. Most important, they make an argument for something.

President Obama has demonstrated this formidable power again and again (most recently Notre Dame) and it's time that the GOP recognizes that this is not evidence of mere celebrity.

The good news is that the GOP has the solution to its current problem close at hand:

President Obama's success tells us that substance sells.

Just like a consumer brand, the GOP must make a clear and compelling case for itself and know that there are people out there waiting for this case to be made (it's called the marketing dyad, more here).

The GOP has to explain why big government, lax defense and socialized policies haven't worked and won't work in the future. They have to make these arguments shine like new again by fashioning them for an audience that might not yet understand them (John Steele Gordonmade a great argument in the Wall Street Journal this week when he showed just how poor the government's track record has been when it tries to run businesses).

The good news for the GOP is that "green shoots" came from an unexpected place last week: Dick Cheney.

Dick Cheney's widely-covered "rebuttal" speech to Barack Obama shows that substance sells.

Cheney expressed a clear vision --essentially Realpolitik-- that is a time-tested alternative to the arguably naive liberal version of "just reach out and touch someone." The touchy-feely approach certainly didn't seem to work last week with the trifecta slap-in-your face rebuffs: the Iranian test launch of a missile that can hit Israel, Netanyahu statement that he will allow expansion of West Bank settlements; and North Korea's detonation of another atomic bomb.

And then there was Colin Powell who is making an argument for why being a Republican is a big vision not a small one --his suggestion for an "after-action" review to determine how to make the GOP win again is real marketing at its best.

So there are some green shoots, but from a real marketing perspective no comprehensive, winning strategy yet. The GOP needs to be excited and convinced by what it believes and learn how to promote these core brand characteristics.

And remember, things are always easier to understand when you keep marketing and branding in mind.