The State of the President’s Brand

Last Tuesday, President Barack Obama delivered his fifth State of the Union address. But what is the state of the president? How is his brand holding up?

On the surface, not well. According to Pew’s latest poll, the president was at 43% approval versus 49% disapproval on the eve of his big speech — near his all-time low.

This could be very bad for Democrats, and not just for those rooting for the president himself. Low state-by-state approval ratings are looking like they could imperil Democratic control of the Senate. But there are at least three factors in the president’s brand that I believe mean he’s poised for a turnaround this year.

1. Problems with the Obama Brand Are Tied to Obamacare — but Obamacare’s Future Looks Pretty Good

In 2012, or maybe it was 2011, the White House and Democrats started embracing the term “Obamacare,” for better or worse making the signature health care law also know as the Affordable Care Act synonymous with its strongest proponent.

Then some of the main provisions of Obamacare, including the national exchange website, had a terrible launch. It’s been a principle factor in dragging down the president’s approval rating.

But here’s why that’s not such a bad thing:

  • Republicans are not going to repeal it. Repeal would be the ultimate defeat, and that train has sailed, as they say.
  • It’s getting better. The website’s initial user experience difficulties are over and fixed, for all intents and purposes, and enrollment is surging — on pace to come pretty close to pre-shitshow projections. Insurers are reporting more signups than expected.
  • Polling on Obamacare itself has largely rebounded from the rollout, and people broadly support the actual policies in the Affordable Care Act when you don’t call them Obamacare.
  • 2. Brand Fundamentals Are in Excellent Shape

    While the top-line Obama brand isn’t measuring well right now, the underlying “products” are in great shape. This doesn’t happen that often in the commercial world, but take Nike in the 1990’s. Sweatshop conditions in overseas factories that produced Nike’s products were getting a lot of attention, including protests against the parent brand. You would have to say that’s bad for the strength of a brand, yet Nike obviously survived. It had over $25 billion in revenue last year because it took on and reversed the issues that had been damaging it, and people were happy with the shoes, apparel, and equipment.

    Nike branding problems
    Nike overcame its sweatshop-related branding problems.

    Similarly, people by and large strongly prefer the Democratic approach to most of the issues the country faces. They may not like “Obamacare,” when you use that name, but they don’t want to repeal it. They support the Democratic position on immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship. They want to spend more on infrastructure in order to create jobs, like Democrats have pushed for. They even still want universal background checks on gun sales.


    The new NBC/WSJ poll, for instance, finds that a majority of Americans, 51 percent, believe Republicans will be “too inflexible” with Obama, while only 25 percent say they have the balance right (one wonders about the faculties of the 17 percent who say Republicans have been “too quick to give in” to the president). By contrast, only 39 percent say Obama has been too inflexible with Republicans.
    Yesterday’s Pew poll found that by a huge margin of 52-27, Americans say Dems are more willing than Republicans to work with the opposition. While the GOP holds a narrow lead on the economy, it also found lopsided Dem advantages on which party is viewed as extreme and which party is more concerned with ordinary people — suggesting, again, awareness of the basic imbalance.

    That doesn’t mean any of those great, popular priorities are going to happen over Republican obstruction. But it does mean the fundamentals of President Obama’s brand are stronger than the top lines right now, which always makes it easier to recover.

    3. The Obama Team Isn’t Making Too Many Stupid Mistakes … or at Least Isn’t Compounding Them

    As an Obama supporter, I was really hoping heading into the State of the Union address that the president wouldn’t build his speech around the worst messaging point of the year so far, which had been used frequently by his team in the lead-up:

    “He is going to look in every way he can with his pen and his phone to try to move the ball forward,” [dubiously qualified press guy Dan] Pfeiffer said. “We’re putting an extra emphasis on it in 2014.”

    That messaging is about the worst way to accomplish the team’s very sensible goal for protecting the president’s image:

    Scott Wilson has a must read on what’s really driving the new thinking. Short version: Obama advisers have concluded that he’s coming across as too much of a prisoner of the Congressional stalemate that has resulted from GOP obstructionism. Resorting to executive authority is also about resetting the prism through which the American people evaluate the president’s performance and his engagement with them — by conveying a sense that he has a plan to move the country forward, and he’s acting on it.

    Making it sound like you’re trapped in a room with just a pen and a phone is English for “I’m a prisoner.” It’s bad enough that messaging representatives like Dan Pfeiffer have been using that line, but adding it to the State of the Union would have been extremely counterproductive. The fact that he avoided it surely speaks to a certain awareness of what it will take to turn the ship around.

    Unless you’re MacGyver, and you can do crazy impressive shit like
    “talking” to computers, playing up your phone skills does not brand you
    as a strong leader.

    Thus, the Brand Outlook Isn’t that Bad

    If the president avoids making terrible messaging choices, and Obamacare continues posting strong results, I don’t see any reason why the fundamental appeal of Democrats’ policies shouldn’t lead to a recovery for the Obama brand and a revival of Democrats’ choices in Novembers. After all, when the actions you favor rate highly, projecting an “image of vigorous unilateral action,” as he did in the State of the Union address, is the path to getting your support back.