Selling the Stimulus -- Obama Takes a Page From Reagan

By John TantilloMarketing Expert

Folks, last week I talked about the three distinct brands in Washington: Democrats, Republicans and Brand Obama.

[caption id="attachment_7156" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="President Barack Obama speaks during a visit to a construction site of the Fairfax County Parkway connector in Springfield, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)"][/caption]

This week I want to look at the so-called stimulus and just how Brand Obama has kicked the poli-marketing machine into high gear and where he learned his approach from.

What I emphasized last week and I want to emphasize once again is that the old politics is finished and that real marketing and the new politics (I call it poli-marketing) is going to trump old politics again and again in the days, weeks and months to come (and if the Republicans and old-guard Democrats don't get on the poli-marketing bandwagon then they won't be around to market anything at all).

So let's see how Brand Obama's poli-marketing machine played out over the past week:

At first, it looked like old politics might win. Obama had an old-time partisan squeaker in the House and then the Senate bill seesawed through contentious sessions and only attracted three moderate Republicans.

We had dramatic old-style rhetorical flourishes like Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina waving the bill as if the sheer weight of it was an argument against passage and partisan counter-punches in the form of Senator Barbara Boxer chiding Graham like he was a schoolboy.

This was old politics. It was politics by negative tactics. It was reactionary and it felt reactionary.

All the while, the media was asking where Brand Obama was and speculating that he wasn't doing enough to help his bill.

But that's one of Brand Obama's traits: waiting for the dust to settle. It is a trait and a strength shared with (and probably learned from) another great poli-marketer, Ronald Reagan.

Yes, Ronald Reagan. You've been hearing a lot about the FDR/Obama link, but, frankly, Obama has even more in common with Reagan when it comes to poli-marketing. Like Reagan, he knows how to reserve his marketing strength for the big battles and not the minor scraps. He also has the ability to remain above the fray (remember how they called Reagan, the "Teflon" president?).

More important, like Reagan, Obama is claiming a mandate for change and donning the anti-Washington mantle (look at how he made fun of the legislative process when he spoke in Indiana on Monday --he built good will with the audience with his Jimmy Stewart-like delivery and put some distance between himself and "dysfunctional" Washington in the same breath).

Like Brand Reagan, Brand Obama projects the image that his presidency is based on a popular groundswell.

Like Brand Reagan, when Obama acts, he acts by reaching out to the people who put him in the White House (and conveniently and wisely includes the 40-plus percent who didn't vote for him as would-be supporters -he re-enforces by talking up the free market).

Once Brand Obama got marketing this week, he didn't (and hasn't stopped) and just like we saw with his campaign momentum, once again he was underestimated by his opponents as the power of the marketing wave built into something that could defeat them.

He got criticism for starting to campaign again. Wrong. This isn't campaigning, it's reaching out to his target market and re-emphasizing his brand in everyone's mind. This is also the new politics which is about using every means at your disposal to get your message out --most especially reaching out directly to the people who the decisions in Washington most affect.

Obama's visits to Indiana and Florida showed that he was not going to wall himself up in Washington and the hermetically-sealed legislative process.

The trips also showed that --like him or not--that he was gutsy. The questioners at the big event in economically-depressed Indiana were unscreened and he got some hostile doozies that he handled well.

Again, this was not campaigning, it was one of the pillars of the new politics poli-marketing. At the same time that he was "out with the people", his Web site and e-mail machine (DNC chief Governor Kaine was out in front) was getting the message out in new and dynamic ways.

One can only imagine what Ronald Reagan would have done with the Internet. Fuggedaboutit.

None of this is to say Brand Obama is the perfect poli-marketer. In fact, he's got to do a lot more.

Obama said that he would go through budgets line-by-line...Well, he's got to take this stimulus package and emphasize the benefits for his target market line by line.

Real marketing is about selling benefits --it's notabout conning people and selling them things they don't need. So real poli-marketing is about selling real benefits in specific terms. People aren't passive idiots (didn't Thomas Jefferson say never underestimate the American people?)... If they hear there are real benefits for them from this package, they'll sign on.

Brand Obama must also move away from just explaining the danger associated with not passing the bill. After all, this is how former-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson got into trouble. Instead, the president must make the package theirs and show how this will help people in very specific ways. He started doing this in Elkhart, Indiana when he talked about the building a bridge downtown and how that would benefit the community.

But, the biggest change he should make is to ditch the term "stimulus" --that is hazy, old political pork language.

Why not call it the "Jobs Bill"? This would let him to immediately reject calls that would have him address foreclosure relief and other economic issues in this bill and heighten the focus.

Again, his primary target market is the American people and what matters to them. It's jobs first. Two days ago Target got 10,000 or so applicants for 200 warehouse jobs at $12.50 an hour.

Today, the president is not only Chief Executive Officer. He is Chief Marketing Officer and marketing is nota dirty word.

Next week, we'll tackle the Republicans and how they need to learn from Obama. After all, the game's not over. The Democrats have it only half right (they're still mired in the old politics (issues) and not the new politics (needs) -- the Republicans might get it all right in the battle of the brands.

And remember, it's always easier to understand politics when you keep marketing and branding in mind.