Last week I said I’d take a look at how president Obama was doing on his most difficult task: Rebranding the used-up, soiled image of the American Government, both here and abroad.
Well, we’re still short of a hundred days, but the first results are in, and they look promising. This week, for the first time in several years, a slender majority of Americans thinks the country is on the right track. That’s good progress during bad times at home, and there are some hopeful developments abroad as well.
In order to understand what Obama is trying to do, and undo, it’s important to understand what went wrong. How, exactly, was the brand of the “last best hope” of humanity so thoroughly trashed?
It starts with words. Words, and their misuse, did more to kill Bush’s presidency than his misguided, poorly-thought-out, often inept and always arrogant policies. “Great job, Brownie.” “Mission accomplished.” “Axis of evil.” Those are the brands that shouted “failure” to America and the world. No matter how bad the situation, the Bush team found a way to make it look even worse.
Arrogance was the Bush brand. He framed his arguments and justified his actions arrogantly; even his benign policies were presented with arrogance. His politics and policies didn’t ask for agreement, they demanded submission. He sought not to change minds, but to conquer them. Those minds closed against him.
If words are the lifeblood of statecraft, if ideas ultimately power the dynamo of history, then framing those ideas poorly—branding them poorly—sends one into battle with defective weapons. George Bush faced off against 21st century enemies—from terror networks to Cat Five hurricanes—with a rusty flintlock.
Bush thought being smart, subtle and persuasive was tantamount to weakness. His contempt for soft power put us on the defensive everywhere we didn’t have boots on the ground. It was a dismal failure, and, to be fair, it didn’t start with Bush.
America’s brand has been characterized by obstreperousness, castigation, insults and general blow-hardism for ages. It hasn’t worked worth a damn, for us.
But it’s been social security for dictators the world over. Castro, Chavez, the two Korean Kims and the mullahs in Iran have been in power for decades, despite our “best efforts.”
American anger is a gift to those guys, they feed off our hostility. A clever dictator can stay in power for generations if he has an external enemy to blame for all his failures. We provide that service every time we pump up a tottering regime with hard words and insulting rhetoric. Aiming at the dictator, we hit the people. A circle-the-wagons reflex stokes pride and nationalism, and makes them see their dictator as the defender of national self-esteem.
And we never let them down; our presidents never shook hands with them. The game could have gone on forever.
But Obama does shake their hands, in front of the cameras, smiling like he’s enjoying it. It’s a knife to the heart for the handshakee.
Just ask Fidel. Our policies against Cuba, worse than a pointless relic of the Cold War, were a daily transfusion of lifeblood to that anemic regime. We tried it all, invasions, embargos, diplomatic isolation, acts of congress, and nothing worked. Castro was stuck in place like a living fossil, with his brother primed to succeed him as Generalissimo.
Then Obama makes nice with Raul for a couple of weeks and the game changes. Suddenly Fidel is at his brother’s throat. Obama’s words did more internal damage to the Castro regime in two weeks than our embargo did in fifty years.
That’s called being smart. Obama knows that you can’t sell the tastiest, most nutritious breakfast cereal in the world if you name it “Puke.” So he rebrands the product, he changes the tone, chooses the words, and even our sworn enemies feel compelled to react. He sends an infomercial to Iran that puts them on the defensive; they may deplore it but they know they are compelled to answer it. He drops the negative brand “enemy combatant” and closes Guantanamo, which had a brand as toxic as the Love Canal, and it’s a game changer. The old anti-American strategies no longer work.
Obama put our defense in better order by putting our nation in better odor. He’s got our enemies on the defensive, a thing Bush could never do without firepower.