The Democratic Party has a long history of poor communications. President Jimmy Carter helped to undermine his chances for reelection by handing Republicans a public relations gift that is enshrined in the Hall of Fame of political gaffs. Although he never uttered the word, it is referred to as the “Malaise Speech” that decried the country’s “crisis of confidence.” In hindsight, it was prescient. It captures the current mood of the country. But in 1979, it was not what the country wanted to hear. Ultimately, Americans embraced the “Morning in America” message his successor President Ronald Reagan delivered to win in a landslide.
Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton had been paying attention. When asked during a debate leading up to the 1992 presidential election if he could find a cure for the ailing economy, the naturally gifted communicator convinced the many struggling Americans that he felt their pain. His empathic response contrasted with the incumbent President H. W. Bush’s tortured response, trying logically to understand the nature of the question. He asked the moderator whether she said rich people aren’t affected by the growing debt problem.
A key, if not the key, to the Presidency is the spokesperson for the administration, the press secretary. Jody Powell, Carter’s press secretary, was not especially memorable. Mike McCurry, Clinton’s longest press secretary, was exceptional. He was a master at managing the media and controlling the narrative. His job was particularly challenging during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but he handled it well. He attributes part of his success to developing a relationship with the media by occasionally making them laugh.
I thought Robert Gibbs was a horrible choice to be press secretary. Don’t get me wrong. He was a great person and a loyal campaign team member, but he was horrible at the podium. He oversaw the passage and rollout of the Affordable Care Act, which failed to get the Obama Administration the credit it deserved. Josh Ernest, who was with the campaign initially and eventually got the job, would have been a better choice from the onset.
When Karine Jean-Pierre was selected as the White House Press Secretary last year, in the wake of Jen Psaki’s decision to leave for a job at MSNBC, I worried about how the press corps would receive her, being the first black and openly gay press secretary in the nation’s history. Usually, press secretaries are given a honeymoon to gain footing and become acclimated to the high-pressure role. She was blasted after her first four press conferences. She was obviously scripted, demonstrating the White House’s lack of confidence in her.
She was a familiar face to MSNBC viewers, having been an on-air commentator for several years. My concern arose recently because, unlike her predecessor Jen, it did not seem she was managing the media but being overly cautious in her responses and pronouncements, as if she focused more on avoiding mistakes than controlling the narrative. I know that being black in America often means working twice as hard to prove you’re half as good. She seemed she was trying too hard to deliver messages perfectly and not make any unforced errors.
Got to play the race card here because there has been similar criticism of Vice President Kamala Harris and her ability to do her job effectively. So, I asked Bard, Google’s version of chatGPT, “who is the angry black woman?” It describes the term as “a harmful stereotype used to silence and discredit black women for centuries . . . based on the false assumption that black women are naturally angry and aggressive and that this anger is a sign of their inferiority.” It goes on to say that there is no scientific basis for the stereotype, and it persists because it serves a powerful purpose in society by allowing white people to justify their own prejudices and discrimination against black people and allowing black women to be silenced and marginalized.
This is a supposedly unbiased response from an artificial intelligence (AI) source. So, I Googled the term to get a human perspective. It was quite interesting reading. President Biden’s ratings have tanked because of the message, not the messenger. This latest debt ceiling debacle is a good example. The official position was that he would not negotiate on the debt ceiling as a matter of principle. The American people were not going to be held hostage by Republicans. We are now engaged in ongoing negotiations. The administration challenged the Republicans to submit a budget proposal which they have not done. Their alleged legislative proposal doesn’t identify the specific programs that would be cut and by how much. This administration has lost control of the narrative, and it’s not Karine’s fault.