Sunday, November 27, 2011

Defining Obama: Presidential Image and Narrative in the 2012 Elections

In so many ways it may already be too late for President Obama. It may be too late for him to construct an alternative narrative about his successes and accomplishments that he can use on the campaign trail to support his re-election. For many Americans, the narratives have already stuck that his presidency and policies are a failure.

Two rules that every successful presidential candidate remembers are that “politics is like selling beer” and that “define or be defined.” The first rule refers to the power of political narratives, the second to the constructing your own image–creating an image–or having someone else do it for you. Both of these are rules about constructively using the media–generally in an aggressive and proactive way to do messaging.

This blog has repeatedly discussed the power of political narratives. Candidates need a compelling narrative that describes who they are, their vision for the future, and what they want their presidency to look like. The narrative is their reason for running for office (“I am running for president because...”) and the direction they want to take their presidency and the American public. George W. Bush was chided for lacking that “vision thing” and rightly so, but he still won in 1988 for other reasons (see below).

The way of persuasion is about having a narrative. We tell stories about ourselves when job hunting (the cover letter and resume), we tell stories to do fund raising (“Send money to feed the homeless”), and businesses sell products by telling stories (“Drink this soda and you too will be cool.”). It is less reason and facts that move people than it is narratives, with the best being about the future, messages that are optimistic, and those which inspire passion.

The great narratives of our time were Ronald Reagan’s “It’s morning in America” and Bill Clinton’s appropriation of Fleetwood Mack’s Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow. Both were brilliant narratives about hope and the future. They were narratives that promised a better tomorrow; they appealed to America’s sense of progress, optimism, and that the future will be better than the past. Perhaps one of the most famous lines in movie history–Scarlet O’Hara’s “Tomorrow is another day” from Gone with the Wind captures the compelling nature of this American belief in a better future.

The 2008 presidential race witnessed dueling narratives of John McCain and Barack Obama. McCain’s narrative spoke of the world being a dangerous place and that we should not trust enemies. He touted his military experience to keep us safe and he sought to get America to forget that he was a Republican wanting to the keep the White House in his party’s hands after a failed eight years under George Bush. McCain’s narrative sought to channel the Reagan brand one more time but it failed. It failed to an Obama narrative of change. A narrative of hope for the future, of an appeal to a new generation wanting their turn at power. Obama simply had a great narrative. He also had the fortune of a collapsing economy that worked to his favor, and a Republican vice-presidential candidate in Sarah Palin who few thought was qualified to be president in the event of McCain’s death.

But beyond the narrative, Obama also understood the power of define or be defined. In politics, you need to define who you and your opponents are before they do that to you. Remember the famous 1990 Andre Agassi Canon commercial–“Image is Everything”–that captures the point.

Image construction is important to politics, especially if you can do it to your opponents. On Labor Day 1988 Michael Dukakis had a 18 point lead over George Bush. Bush used Willie Horton, references to the ACLU, and stories about the Massachusetts’ governor not wanting to kill someone who hypothetically raped his wife to cast him as a pinko who was soft on crime. Bush went to win the presidency by three points.

In 1992, when allegations of marital infidelity nearly wrecked Bill Clinton’s campaign, his staff used the latest technology of the day–the fax machine–to proactively counter stories. Finally, in 2004, the Bush campaign brilliantly defined John Kerry as an elitist coward who purposively injured himself three times to get out of Vietnam early. The genius in transforming a three-time Purple Heart winner into a coward was amazing; thus the power of narratives.

Again in 2008 Obama understood the charm of definition. He defined himself as the candidate of hope and change, of McCain the candidate of the old an stodgy, and he also successfully declared Ronald Reagan and his narrative to be dead. Obama brought narrative and definition together to create an amazing campaign story about himself and his opponents.

But the brilliance of 2008 rapidly faded. All that was done so well in 2008 failed Obama and the Democrats in 2010. They lost the narrative and definition. Palin mocked Obama by asking how we liked the “hopey-changey stuff?” The Republicans tied TARP to Obama and not Bush. They decried that the stimulus bill was a failure (even though it did work but was insufficient to address the real depth of recession the economy was in), and they questioned his competence and leadership. All of this has stuck. In part it stuck because there was some truth to many of the accusations, but still the Republicans were lethal after being trounced in 2008. They went on the attack from January 20, 2009 and redefined Obama as a failure.

Now think about where Obama is as 2012 is about to begin. Obama’s successes are defined as failures. The stimulus did help, TARP made money (Yes, it was a Bush program), and he did deliver on many other promises. Health care reform is decried as Obamacare and bank regulation as killing the economy. Obama’s narrative of change has degenerated into “It could have been worse” as described so many times in this blog. Obama still lacks a narrative and worse, he is defined as a failure and as unable to rescue the economy. Again, there is much evidence that this is accurate, but even if not, Obama has been defined by a narrative that he cannot escape. Obama needs to escape the economy and run against a do-nothing unpopular Congress. He needs to cast himself as an economist populist that fights for the other 99%. In short, Obama needs a complete makeover.

It will be hard to do this now that he has already been defined by the Republicans for the last four years. But even if not for the last four years, clearly in the last few months the Republican presidential debates have been influential in doing that. While Obama does his presidential thing, the GOP candidates debate and get press. They get air time attacking the president and he does not respond. The candidates collectively have succeeded in crafting an image of Obama that has stuck. While four years ago content analysis of media coverage of Obama demonstrated overwhelming positive images, were a similar study done today the hypotheses today would be of just the opposite–overwhelming images. Obama has been defined–his narrative for him written by his opponents.

Obama at least has one advantage–the image and narrative for his Republican opponents is being written and it is a negative one. Palin never had a chance to run for the presidency with over 60% of the public thinking her too dumb or unqualified to be president. Now think about the other Republican contenders–Romney as a boring multiple choice Mick–Bachmann as a religious zealot–Perry as a lightweight cowboy–Cain as a lightweight sexual predator–and Gingrich as a cranky, adulterer, arrogant, hypocrite. These are largely self-defined images reenforced by the media. Hardly the images that are winning presidential formulae.

As the Iowa caucuses loom it will be telling to see how Obama tries to remake his image and narrative. Again, it may be too late to do that but with the narratives and images of his opponents equally dismal Obama might be able to pull off a second term with a slogan reminiscent of we chanted when Richard Nixon was running for a second term: “Don’t change dicks in the middle of a screw, vote for Nixon in 72.” Better the devil we know than the one we do not. That may be Obama’s best hope for a narrative.

Bonus quiz and word association time: When I mention Obama or any of his GOP rivals, what words or images come to your mind? Let me know your suggestions.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Occupy Wall Street highlights documented structural and political inequalities

This blog post originally appeared on Minnpost on November 17, 2011.

Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is a cacophony of voices speaking a simple message about the structural economic and political inequalities in America and around the world. Sharing affinities to the 1999 World Trade Organization protests against globalization, OWS looks to the growing power of global financial institutions and their stranglehold on governments around the world.

OWS points to how the Bush and the Obama administrations loaned or credited trillions to banks and the too-big-to-fails to bail them out after they gambled on Wall Street, only to see homeowners face record losses in their houses and illegal foreclosures by these institutions. Tax breaks and loans were provided to the big auto companies but little was done to help the unemployed. The banks of Europe were recapitalized by the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, but Greece and Italy was compelled to take the so-called "haircuts." Democracy has taken a backseat to saving capitalism. This is the message of OWS.

While Rome and the rest of the world burn, Nero fiddles. At least in this case, the fiddling is done by the Republican presidential candidates, who assert that all that ails the economy can be cured by more tax cuts and free markets. But while the GOP fiddles, a host of interesting studies have come out documenting and criticizing the ideology of Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann and company, as well as offering some insights into the state of the American economy. These reports are worth noting since they have received scant notice in the mainstream media.

The rich are getting richer, the poor poorer, no matter how you examine it.

In October a Congressional Budget Office report documented the growth in income in the United States from 1979 to 2007. For those in the top 1 percent bracket, their income increased by 275 percent. For those in the top 20 percent, it increased by 65 percent, for the middle incomes it was a 40 percent increase, and for those in the bottom 20 percent it was scant 18 percent. In 2010, the census reported the richest 5 percent of the population accounted for 21 percent of the income, with the top 20 percent receiving over 50 percent of the total income in the country.

Moreover, the latest census figures point to a poverty rate in 2010 of 15.1 percent, representing a record 46 million people in poverty. But earlier this month the US Census Bureau issued a new report recalculating what constitutes poverty — noting that current estimates are based on an outdated methodology from 1960s. This measure for calculating poverty did not include government transfers (welfare) or tax cuts when making estimates, and it also did not reflect the current spending patterns of Americans. Using new measurement tools, which the Census Bureau calls the "supplemental measure of poverty," the study concluded that the poverty rate is actually 16 percent — higher than the old estimate — constituting more than 49 million individuals in poverty. So much for welfare queens getting rich on the system.

The rich and poor live in separate worlds.

There is a geographic basis to poverty. Generally the assumption is that poverty is concentrated to the urban cores of major cities. One way to measure the spatial dimension to poverty is to use census data. Census tracts where 25 percent or more of the households live in poverty are referred to as high-poverty neighborhoods, and those with 40 percent or more of the households in poverty are referred to as extreme-poverty neighborhoods. Concentrated poverty is a problem because of the issues surrounding low economic opportunity, high government social service costs, and crime.

Looking at concentrated poverty across the United States, the Brookings Institution recently concluded that 10.5 percent of all individuals lived in extreme-poverty neighborhoods, up from 9.1 percent in 2000. Estimates are that more than 15 percent overall live in concentrated-poverty neighborhoods, with the most rapid growth occurring in the suburbs. The Twin Cities metro region is not immune, with 9.4 percent of the population living in concentrated poverty neighborhoods that include some suburbs but mostly the Minneapolis-St Paul urban cores. These trends parallel 2000 census data demonstrating the gravitation of poverty from the cities to the inner ring suburbs, creating really a two-tiered metro region marked by affluence and poverty.

Similarly, in the just released Stanford University/Russell Sage Foundation’s “Growth in the Residential Segregation of Families by Income, 1970-2009,” researchers found that America was becoming increasingly segregated by income. In 1970 only 15 percent of families were living in affluent or poor neighborhoods, but in 2007 it was 31 percent. They researchers also found that high-income households were less likely to be found in mixed-income neighborhoods than the rest of the population. In general the percentage of Americans dwelling in middle-income neighborhoods was dwindling and, in fact, these types of residential neighborhoods were shrinking.

Overall the study noted the increased economic and racial segregation in this country, with individuals of different classes less and less likely to come into contact with those from other social-economic backgrounds. America has become a tale of two cities.

Taxes really are not job killers.

The canned line from the Republican candidates has been this: high taxes are killing the economy and forcing companies out of business. Three reports again reject this contention.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics compiles data on reasons for mass layoffs. In its most recently survey, which covers 2010 and 2011, factors such as cancellation of a contract or order for goods, insufficient demand for products and increased automation account for the vast majority of layoffs. High taxes do not even appear on the list as a reason.

Second, the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) recently completed a survey asking small businesses to identify the single biggest problem they face. Taxes came in third, with poor sales listed as the biggest issue.

Third, the Citizens for Tax Justice recently released a report, “Corporate Taxpayers & Corporate Tax Dodgers,” documenting the biggest businesses that have failed to pay their fair share of taxes. Among the worst offenders, corporations such as GE, DuPont, Boeing, and Wells Fargo paid no income taxes from 2008-2010, let alone the theoretical 35 percent statutory corporate rate. The Citizens for Tax Justice report documents scores of blue-chip American companies that failed to pay any taxes during these three years, questioning the claim that high taxes are depressing employment and their economic growth.

Moreover, in addressing the arguments made by Herman Cain and others that high corporate tax rates discourage American companies from repatriating $1.2 trillion in money being held overseas, the Corporate Taxpayers study points out that corporate tax rates in other countries are often significantly higher. Additionally, if there is a tax advantage to off-shoring jobs it comes only because American law allows for a permanent deferral on foreign profits. The solution is simple: repeal the deferral and do not allow corporations to use the tax code as an incentive to out-source. Overall, the United States government is facilitating this problem by adopting policies that encourage evasion.

The message from all these studies point to a nation increasingly divided by income, region, and class. They point to a country where the rich pay little taxes or better yet, are able to use the tax code to their advantage — and to a world where in reality, unemployment and slow economic growth are not due to high taxes but to other factors.

Occupy Wall Street is about highlighting these facts, seeking to reintroduce the simple concept that capitalism is meant to facilitate democracy and not vice versa.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Clock Ticks: History, Unemployment, and Presidential Elections

Less than one year to the 2012 elections. Less than 60 days to the New Hampshire primary. Barely 50 days to the Iowa caucuses. The official presidential race is upon us. But as the clock ticks, time is running out for Obama and history is against him.

The basic problem is the economy. Only 80,000 jobs were added in October, placing the unemployment rate at 9.0%. The Federal Reserve Board projects slow economic growth next year–2-2.5%–with the unemployment rate settling in at about 8.5% by election time. Of course these numbers are bad for all those looking for jobs or businesses hoping to grow, yet for Obama it is a real problem.

Since 1932 only two presidents have ever won re-election when the unemployment rate was above 6%. In 1936 and 1940 Franklin Roosevelt won reelection with unemployment rates of 17% and 14.6%, but both of these elections should be treated as outliers or oddities. In 1936 the unemployment rate had dropped from nearly 24% to 17% and the economy was growing at an annual rate of 14%. In 1940 World War II was upon America and with patriotism high, support for Roosevelt was strong. More importantly, the economy was growing at 10% but the perception was that the president had the country going in the right direction.

In 1984 Ronald Reagan won re-election with an unemployment rate of 7.5%. Yet his victory occurred when the economy was growing at more than 11% and gas prices were tumbling from then record highs. Reagan definitely benefited from the perception that it truly was morning in America, especially after the unemployment rate tumbled from around 10% in 1982 and 1983.

But FDR and Reagan aside, high unemployment–six percent or more–is the death knell for a presidential re-election bid. In 1976 Gerald Ford ran for re-election when the unemployment rate was 7.7%–he lost to Jimmy Carter. Four years later the unemployment rate was 7.1% when Carter ran for a second term against Reagan. He lost to the tune of Reagan asking Americans if they were better off now than they were four years ago. In 1992 George Bush sought a second term with an unemployment rate of 7.5%–he lost to a Bill Clinton reminding the voters that it was “the economy stupid.” Conversely, Nixon won with an unemployment rate of 5.6% in 1972, Clinton 5.4% in 1996, Bush in 2004 with 5.5%, Eisenhower 4.1% in 1956, and Truman in 1948 with 3.8%.

Key to a presidential re-election is the actual unemployment rate. But economic, and the reality or perception that it is moving in the right direction, is also important. If there are not significant declines in unemployment along with economic growth and a perception that the economy is moving in the right direction, presidents are not given a second term.

Obama faces an economy where the best projection is of high unemployment and low economic growth. But there is more. Home values remain about 25% or more below what they were in 2008, consumer and now student debt is high, and many people have already blown through their unemployment benefits and face an uncertain future. Consumer confidence remains near historic lows, suggesting little chance that retail sales and spending for the coming holidays and into next year will revive the economy. The public just does not believe the country is headed in the right direction and few think we are better off now than four years ago.

History suggests Obama will lose. This assumes the Republicans put up a viable candidate with a compelling narrative. Yet so far that task seems elusive. Bachmann has come and gone. Perry has gaffed himself to death. Cain’s numbers place him in the GOP lead, but his negatives are escalating as it becomes more apparent that he is a misogynist who treats every woman in a demeaning fashion. Romney is boring and the Republican base does not really know where “multiple choice Mitt” stands on the issues. Gingrich is too acerbic. Congressional approval is less than 10%, with the public placing more blame on the Republicans than Obama for the gridlock in Washington. In short, the Republicans have the Democrats' disease—they are poised to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Obama can still win—he has money, the bully pulpit, and demographics that place perhaps as many as 200 or more electoral votes in easily into his presidential win column without too much effort. Now all he needs is the narrative for his re-election.

Obama hopes for a rerun of the 1948 Truman surprise victory over Dewey, campaigning hard as an economist populist against a hapless elitist. Yet the 1948 campaign featured an economy far better than 2012 so the parallels here might not be good.

Obama is also running on the fear factor—Hope that the American public will be afraid of an extremist Republican president presiding over a Republican Congress. Fear came be a powerful too, but 1980 demonstrated with Carter was up for re-election, fear of a crazy Reagan who would blow up the world was pushed aside by the desire for change and disgust with the status quo. Obama knows the public wants change—as he promised in 2008—but it is hard to run on that narrative when you an incumbent seeking re-election. He needs to navigate a message that promises change while staying the course with him. It’s a hard task—made only more difficult by the unemployment numbers—but Reagan and FDR did it, and now Obama needs to figure out how to channel their magic to do the same.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Legal Football Field: Forcing the Vikings to Stay in Minnesota

Does a snow-collapsed Metrodome mean the Vikings are on the hook for another season in Minnesota? Quite possibly according to the 1979 contract between the team and the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission (MSFC). Yet while the news of the day suggests this is the case, as does the 2002 litigation surrounding the Twins and the Dome, there is no certainty that a court would force the team to stay on another year. At stake here are complex legal issues and principles worth reviewing and clarifying.

The crux of the issue here is the expiration of the Vikings lease-contract with the MSFC at the end of the current football season and rumors that unless public financing is forthcoming to build a new stadium, the Vikings are leaving. In the last couple of days the original lease agreement was reviewed and an interesting contract clause was located. It states in section 15:3:

"For each football season, or part of football season, while this Agreement is suspended, the term of this Agreement ... shall be extended by one football season."

The occasion for invocation of this clause is the collapse of the Dome earlier this year due to snow and the playing of home games at TCF Bank stadium (UMN) and then in Detroit.

Now under the normal rules of contract law, parties generally are not in breach if they are unable to perform for reasons beyond their control. Impossibility to perform is generally accepted as a defense against claims of breach of contract. However, section 15.3 appears within a part of the contract titled as “force majeure.”

Generally force majeure refers to acts of God–acts that are beyond the control of parties such as severe weather, floods, wars, or other acts unforseen by the parties. Normally a roof collapse due to snow would qualify as force majeure. Yet 15.3 also covers this issue and states that: “In the event of a total or partial destruction rendering the stadium not suitable for playing home games...” Thus, the contract appears to define force majeure here, meaning that the collapse of the Dome might well require the Vikings to stay on another year.

But there is still another legal issue at stake here–the concept of specific performance. Generally if contracts are breached the courts do not order specific performance–that is they do not order that the breaching party must actually perform the contract. Instead, the remedies for contract breaches generally are monetary–one pays money. Now there are several formula to calculate damages and they will be ignored here. However, the point is that there are very few instances in Minnesota law where specific damages are awarded.

Specific performance is not generally awarded in personal service contracts or in the case of commercial leases. Landlords usually cannot compel a tenant to stay on and the reverse is usually true too–a tenant cannot require owners to rent to them. Specific performance is ordered only when there is no way to measure or monetize the damages (figure out how to place a cash value on the damages), when the performance called for is something unique–the transaction of real estate for example–,or when the contract contemplates or calls for specific performance.

In the case of the Vikings agreement with the MSFC, one could argue that the agreement itself allows for specific performance by the fact that section 15.3 defines force majeure and what should happen when the team cannot play in the Dome due to its incapacity. Moreover, section 20.8 of the Agreement also provides that the parties can insist upon the “strict and prompt performance of the terms of this Agreement.” Arguably, this clause permits specific performance.

Additionally, one could argue that the nature of the contract–compelling performance of a professional sports franchise–involves something so unique that monetary damages cannot replace the loss. In effect, losing a pro football franchise is something that cannot be replaced with normal contract money damages and therefore specific performance is required. Don’t bet on this as a winning argument.

Furthermore supporters of specific performance can turn to the case of Metropolitan Sports Facilities Com'n v. Minnesota Twins Partnership, 638 N.W.2d 214 (Minn.App. 2002). Here the Twins were required to remain playing in the Dome after major league baseball wanted to contract the league and shutdown the Twins. That case involved an injunction to prevent the contraction. Unlike the Vikings’ lease, the Twins’ had an obligation to play in the Dome unless their force majeure clause applied. It excused them from performance if they were unable to play a home game for a reason beyond the Team’s and the Commission’s control, including strikes, an act of God, a natural casualty, or a court order. Contraction was not force majeure.

The facts in that case are very different from the one with the Vikings. Here, the issue is not contraction but possible breach of contract. Moreover, the Twins case was about a temporary injunction to prevent a team from being eliminated and not simply leaving town. With the Twins, if they were contracted the harm was permanent and it might not be possible to collect money damages. Here, the possibility to collect money damages does exist.

Overall, the Vikings’ agreement with the MSFC gives the latter and the state a new legal tool to use for bargaining. Whether a court would actually enforce it may be immaterial to the uncertainty of how a judge might interpret it and how the agreement might provide a leverage for negotiation.