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Nick Coxon has published 22 articles

A new approach to dealing with fringe critics, and a must-read

The old wisdom -- don't give your more extreme critics the oxygen of publicity -- has been dispensed with in this White House.
Nick Coxon on Sunday 5th April 2009

One of the most interesting things about political commentary in the United States is that the more you move away from the ‘mainstream' print press and network TV, and into the worlds of cable news and talk radio, the more polarised everything becomes. Political issues are rarely black-and-white, there are shades of grey. Not so on cable news and talk radio.

Take the stimulus. Obama signed it on Tuesday. You'd expect that a reasoned observer would argue neither for its absolute correctness or absolute wrongness, for it is neither absolutely right nor absolutely wrong to most in the political spectrum. Economists and politicians from left and right may have varying degrees of agreement with both the concept and the details of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan, but extremely few would argue that it's 100% perfect or 100% imperfect.

Except that doesn't work in a world where ratings are all important and largely dependent on the interestingness of broadcast content, because this sort of graded analysis doesn't persuade the average viewer or listener to tune in in primetime. And so much of the commentary you see on US cable news or hear on talk radio takes big issues like the stimulus as admitting of binary judgment -- the stimulus is either ‘transformative' or ‘catastrophic'. It is not merely ‘strong/weak in parts', but ‘communist', or (my personal favourite) ‘un-American'. Issues are framed in these ways because it's these sorts of judgements which are most conducive to the biggest, most watchable arguments. This is why Rush Limbaugh has (it is believed) just signed a contract that will make him the highest-compensated broadcaster of all time: because the polarised diatribe he engages in is, to many, required viewing.

All this presents a challenge for mainstream politicians, particularly those in government. The challenge for successive administrations has been this: how do we deal with these marginal crazies, who many watch and agree with, but who many more consider to be extremist ranters. (Limbaugh is one in particular who, judging by his approval ratings, is hated by many more people than he is loved by).

The orthodox approach has been that employed (with varying degrees of compliance) by multiple previous White House teams, chiefly the Democrats: that of ‘freezing out' the crazies. By not responding to the spurious commentaries from the fringes of the political spectrum, the hope is they will not receive any more recognition than they merit. The view taken, in essence, has been that the Limbaughs/Coulters/O'Reillys/Hannitys of this world are so far off the mark that to respond to them would only provide them with unwarranted recognition -- the oxygen of publicity.

But this new White House is taking a new approach: attack them, but in such a measured, reasoned, calm manner as to give the impression that the ranters are just that -- loudmouths with little interest in the nuanced realities of political discourse.

Note this clip. It's Robert Gibbs, the White House Press Secretary, responding to this from Rick Santelli, a CNBC contributor. Santelli is not, admittedly, in quite the same league as Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh when it comes to fringe opinion. But his rant -- and it's hard to describe it as anything else -- got a lot of play and attention. So Gibbs responded. He was not afraid to admit that he'd watched the clip of Santelli "a lot over the past 24 hours". He rebutted his argument, but also subtly eviscerated Santelli's credibility. Watch for the line, "I think we left a few months ago the adage that if it was good for a derivatives trader that it was good for Main Street. I think the verdict is in on that." Gibbs shows precisely what the Obama strategy has been these past weeks, towards many of the more vocal and extreme opponents of the administration. He responds, substantively, and at the same time gives a clear impression about personality: that the detractors are out of step with real people (here he draws attention to Santelli's former occupation as a "derivatives trader"), whilst the administration is in line with the feelings of "Main Street". The same is true of his tone, and of Obama's. It's calmness is intended to provide sharp contrast with that of the detractors.

This is the new approach, and it's interesting and different. It came about in the wake of Daschle's withdrawal. It was then that Obama took to the road to sell the stimulus, and started fighting back against critics (for example in the clip I linked to here). It's part of a strategy to take Obama's popularity out for a ride, to see what it can do. Not chafing against his established image of a cool, professorial figure -- the ‘comforter-in-chief' as some have (rather awkwardly branded) him-- but rather using his clear oratorical power and personal persuasiveness, and the skills of his top staff, to respond to those who had enjoyed relative freedom from rebuttal.


I normally dislike the intrusiveness of labeling articles as ‘a must-read', but this brilliant piece is worth a look. Rahm Emanuel is not only the White House Chief of Staff (often thought to be the second most powerful person in Washington after the President), but he's turning out to be a particularly powerful holder of the job. What's more, he's got a certain Malcolm Tucker-ish quality.


27th February at 8.19pm
another great post, nick. the analysis is spot-on. But do you think you could be a bit more concise? Some of us have American attention spans.