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Obama Fails Marketing 101 on Health Care Reform

July 29, 2009

Seven years ago, President Bush's chief of staff Andy Card famously explained the administration's post-Labor Day campaign for war with Iraq, "'From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August." As cynical and deceitful as the ensuing six month marketing effort was, President Bush at least knew what he was selling. Sadly, when it comes to health care reform, Barack Obama hasn't even defined the product yet.
Obama's failure to date in marketing 101 - know your audience, define the program, brand it and relentlessly sell it with bullet-point messages - is reflected in the increasingly steep uphill climb for his health care initiatives. The essential public insurance option he claims to support is teetering on the edge of the abyss, thanks to conservative Democrats in both the Senate and the House making common cause with obstructionist Republicans.
In response, President Obama seems poised to define not what his health care plan is, but what it is not. As the Washington Post reported, one week after his primetime press conference got into the policy weeds of health care reform, Obama will use a town hall sales job to roll-out his first list of bullet points, the "8 No's":

The re-tooled pitch highlights eight ways that, the White House says, health-care consumers would be treated better by insurance companies if reform efforts pass. It isn't exactly prime sound-bite material -- the catchiest title we could come up with is 'Eight No's, an Extension and a Guarantee,' which doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.

While Obama's list of no's for insurers (such as "no discrimination for pre-existing conditions" and "no dropping of coverage for the seriously ill") is both laudable and needed, it's no substitute for the big picture. The people need to know what the objective is (say, covering virtually all Americans), what they're getting for their $1 trillion plus investment, and how it will be paid for (for example, deficit neutral with possible funding mechanisms still to be negotiated).
On Sunday, former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich gave Congressional Democratic leaders and President Obama alike some much needed advice on precisely these points. Whether or not his is the ideal approach, Reich suggests that at this late date, President Obama still has a serious problem in defining his product and marketing it:

First, the House must enact a bill before August recess even if the Senate is unable to -- and the House bill should include the four key elements that have already emerged from House committees: (1) a public plan option, (2) a mandate on all but the smallest employers to provide their employees with health insurance or else pay a tax or fee (so-called "pay or play"), (3) a requirement that every individual and family buy health insurance, coupled with subsidies for families up to 300 or 400 [sic] times the poverty level in order to make sure it's affordable to them; and (4) a small surtax on the top 1 percent of earners or families to help pay for this subsidy ("tax the wealthy so all Americans can stay healthy.")
Second, the President must tell Congress in no uncertain terms that all four elements are necessary

Yet it is this that President Obama seems unwilling to do. The question is why.
Answers abound. For his part, Obama's physician and single payer advocate David Scheiner lamented, "His pragmatism is what is overwhelming him." Reich and Mark Shields among others have suggested Obama has "overlearned" the lessons of the Clinton health care fiasco, insisting to a fault that Congress take the lead in defining the program so that the white hot political debate is not personalized and his prestige and capital not linked to its successful passage.
Perhaps most worrying is that his handling of the ever-more troubled health care reform appears symptomatic of a larger pattern. As with the stimulus debate that yielded a watered down $787 billion recovery package, Obama's risk aversion and overly strong impulses towards consensus and bipartisanship seem destined to produce suboptimal health care reform, if any at all. And for all his outreach, Obama will get the back of the hand from virtually all Congressional Republicans and some Democrats as well.
In the mean time, the health care debate risks escaping Obama's control because he won't define it. You can't win a messaging war if you don't control the messages. (A health care package by any other name may not smell as sweet.) And even with a product Americans are literally dying to have, that marketing failure is making it almost impossible to sell in August, or any other time.
UPDATE: Over at 538, Nate Silver also argues, "Obama, Democrats Flunking Health Care Sales Pitch." In a positive step forward, Blue Dog Democrats agreed to a compromise approach in the House cutting $100 billion from a plan which still includes a public option. Any vote will be delayed until September.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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