White House Seeks to Regain Control of Its Message With New Strategy

The White House -- knocked off balance by a resurgent Republican Party, stagnant poll numbers and partisan gridlock in Congress -- is seeking to regain its stride with a new communications strategy.

Dan Pfeiffer, the new White House communications director, vows to do a better job of delivering the Obama's message and says the strategy in 2010 will include a sharper focus on the president's signature issues and a faster and more aggressive response to Republican attacks.

Obama will spend more time reminding Americans he's the candidate who promised to change Washington's toxic ways and will spend more time out of Washington where his message is more warmly received, Pfeiffer said.

The refined strategy already has been put into effect. Last week, right after a meeting with Republicans, the president conducted his first news conference in six months to make sure the GOP comments to reporters outside the White House didn't define the day.

On Sunday, Vice President Biden countered former Vice President Dick Cheney by appearing in two morning news shows instead of waiting until the next day to respond.

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And the president is expected to hit the road at the end of the week.

Stephen Farnsworth, a communications professor at George Mason University, says the strategy might work.

"No matter how unpopular a president is, the Congress is still more unpopular than the president," he said.

But other experts doubt a new strategy will make a difference.

It's hard to make the case that voters don't know what Obama wants, since he had more prime time news conferences in his first year than any president in history, said Dana Perino, the last press secretary for President George W. Bush.

Perino thinks the White House's tone has been too aggressive.

"I think aggressive tactics is one thing," she said. "I think a softer tone would be helpful."

In the case of health care reform, Farnsworth said the president's "deference to Capitol Hill" was costly, He thinks the White House gave Republicans an opening that they exploited.

The Republican insistence that the reforms would be a government takeover drowned out the president's contention that the reforms are needed to keep future budget deficits in check, he said.

In his news conference last week, Obama conceded the public's view of legislative deal making in the debate turned people against the reforms.

"I think that actually contaminates how they view the substance of the bills," he said.

But Perino believes it's not a matter of packaging. She said Obama spent "most of his political capital on the health care bill when he should have been focusing on jobs."

Farnsworth said the overreach was typical.

"It's very tempting for an administration to pull all of the levers at the same time and Washington simply cannot work effectively if the president's attention moves in 10 different directions," he said.

Perino also said the White House picked fights it should have left to surrogates, including disputes with Cheney, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh.

Sunday's virtual confrontation between Biden and Cheney served as an example. While Cheney moderated his tone, Biden said Cheney was "either misinformed or misinforming" the American public about the Obama administration's efforts in the war on terror.

Farnsworth said a more partisan atmosphere and the Democrats' lopsided majorities in the House and Senate exacerbate the problem.

"There are fewer and fewer moderate elected officials," he said, explaining that for Republicans "there is no downside to opposing the president."

Farnsworth suggested likely Republican Congressional gains in the 2010 elections could lead to "more of an environment that is conducive to compromise," as Republicans have more chance to influence legislation instead of simply blocking it.

Every president adjusts his ways of dealing with Congress and talking to the American people at some point in his administration, Farnsworth said.

He said the changes happening in the Obama White House are "something a lot like you saw in the third year of the Clinton presidency or the fourth year of the Bush presidency," suggesting that the mistakes of the first year aren't necessarily fatal.

Perino feels the proof of the pudding will be the 2010 midterm elections. She said the Obama White House both misread the polls before Republican Scott Brown won the Senate seat in Massachusetts previously held by the late Ted Kennedy, and misread the meaning of the win afterward.

"So where do they go from here is the big question," Perino said.