Did Obama's marketing let him down?

President Obama made big changes for workers, but they were lost in translation

Did Obama's marketing let him down?

President Barack Obama speaks at the Global Leadership in the Arctic, 2015. Picture by Andrew Harnik AP/Press Association Images

As President Barack Obama leaves office, his term will be undoubtedly be remembered as historically significant, but many of the promises he put forward were met with fierce opposition throughout his eight years in office.

Donald Trump, who not only represents the other political party but perhaps the antithesis of many of the grander ideas Obama stood for, hammered the 44th President on the loss of jobs in areas such as the Rust Belt, and appealed to those Americans who felt left behind since he took office.

Similarly, the consistent push to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was one of the the promises the new president made to his supporters on the campaign trail.

‘Obamacare’, as it became known, extended healthcare to millions who hadn’t been covered before, but it also changed the way that around 150 million Americans who have coverage through their workplace were treated too, increasing the caps on the costs of their treatment, and changing the healthcare marketplace entirely.

Obama enjoyed some of his highest approval ratings of his tenure on his way out the door, while it seems that many are beginning to rally around his healthcare law as the full impact of its changes for millions of people become apparent. 

So why did it take so long for that to be made clear? The answer, at least in part, is marketing.

As good a public speaker as Obama is, the communication of his presidency at times felt stilted, even coldly political; a stark contrast to the man who whipped up such fervour among his supporters on the road to the White House.  

The rates for the those in favour of Obamacare are the highest they have ever been, according to the latest figures from Real Clear Politics, as people begin to fear that the legislation that gave millions of people coverage will be taken away from them, and they are letting their elected officials know.

U.S. Representative from Colorado, Mike Coffman, was caught on camera leaving a community meeting with his constituents early via the back door of the building as a result of the demand to talk about Republican efforts to repeal the healthcare law.

While striking down Obamacare has been priority number one for Trump, the discourse has definitely shifted as Republicans feel the pressure to replace it with something.

Image: President Donald Trump prepares to sign his first executive order. AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Speaking in his final interview as President to four of his former aides, Obama noted that if he could tell the 2009 version of himself one thing, it would be to concentrate on messaging.

“You have to spend more time thinking about new ways of communicating with the American people,” Obama said. “You can’t be so intimidated by the way things have been done in the White House because the communications landscape is shifting.

“I’m always surprised and gratified about how we got, I think, basic policy right [...] but I might have said to 2009 Obama: ‘Think about you got here, and spend that same amount of effort and energy touching people directly, as opposed to standing behind a podium and giving a bunch of grim lectures’.”

The effects of that inability to sell the right message can be seen in the battles he fought on healthcare and the economy throughout his time in office.


Speaking to Newstalk.com, Senior Policy Analyst at Vox, Sarah Kliff, highlighted the sense of regret that Democrats have in relation to healthcare, in particular in the wake of Trump’s victory.

“There generally is a recognition on the part of the Democrats that they messed up with the messaging, that they were not out there loud enough talking about how the healthcare law works, and who it covers.” said Kliff.

“Democrats feel like they didn’t talk enough about how the healthcare law benefitted everyone. A lot of people who don’t think of themselves as beneficiaries of Obamacare, they are getting some of those benefits in that it reformed the insurance markets.

“They also did not expect this relentless, seven year campaign against the healthcare law from Republicans. It has felt a little bit unprecedented, the amount of party unity from them, even as people sign up and the years go by, they have remained totally committed to repealing it.

In fact, it was the Republicans who first began to dub it Obamacare, tying the act to the President, in particular in states where he was not popular.

While the term itself seems to have been coined by Jeanne Schulte Scott in the journal Healthcare Financial Management in reference to the biggest issues of the 2008 campaign, it came to prominence when used by Obama’s opponent in that race, Mitt Romney.

It made for easier, punchier headlines for journalists and a more clear target for Republicans who opposed it, as well as irking the party in power. Democrats such as Debbie Wasserman Schultz even stated that using the term 'Obamacare' for the ACA was a “disparaging reference to the president of the United States," in the house of representatives in February of 2011.  

Perhaps to the confusion of many voters, the Affordable Care Act and Obamacare weren’t the only terms people would need to know. In many states, the coverage offered came under different guises, such as in Kentucky, where it was known as Kynect.

“The reason they marketed it differently was that they knew that it was very unpopular in their state, which was pretty conservative,” Kliff notes. “Because there was this campaign against the healthcare law, that’s why they decided to come up with these new names.”

While the many terms and names used for the same thing may have meant some of the important information slipped through the cracks for voters, there was little confusion about the major issue: the cost of premiums was consistently rising.

The economy, stupid

However, Obama did make changes that put more money back in people’s pockets. Again, the administration failed to make that apparent enough to everyone.

Recently, a change to overtime rules that would have given around 4.2 million workers a raise was blocked by a court in Texas without much kicking or screaming.

Speaking to Newstalk.com, Helaine Olen, author of Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry explained that not only were workers unaware that the administration had tried to push through a regulation change to their benefit, many business owners were clueless too.   

“Probably the majority of people had no idea this was going to happen,” Olen said. “There was a survey done by Manta, which is a small business owners online platform, and they found that about 40% of the small business owners had no idea they were supposed to be giving people a raise on December 1st, or complying with new overtime rules.

Image: President Barack Obama speaks about the economy during a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, 2016. The president said the U.S. has the strongest, most durable economy in the world. He pointed to wage and income growth, job growth, lower oil prices and increasing health insurance as evidence. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

“There seems to be no question that the roll out of this did not get as much play as it deserved, and it’s hard to know why,” Olen adds.

Furthermore, the fact that the move was stopped could have played well to the voters in an election that was, for the large part, decided on pocketbook issues. The decision left millions of people in limbo and at the mercy of individual employers to make a decision on their pay, but Democrats failed to bring it to light despite a seemingly unprecedented amount of attention being given to the race in 2016.

“This was left for an effective start date after the election,” Olen explained, highlighting another error on the part of the administration. “If people realised they were due a raise and it got yanked back, and say it had happened at the end of October instead the end of November, they would have been pretty angry - who wants to see a raise given back? For that, you have to wonder why this was left to the last minute, and there’s really no answer for that question.

“It does seem to be part of an issue with the former administration where, especially in the first term, there was a lot of giving towards the Republican side without a lot being given back.”

Make Work Pay was one of those first term initiatives; part of a broader stimulus plan. It was, essentially, a tax break of around $400 for a huge number of workers in America, but again, it went almost completely unnoticed.

In this case, the decision to avoid giving the money in the form of a single cheque - the more traditional method of issuing a tax break in the United States - and instead issuing it in instalments was a deliberate one, aimed at getting people to spend the extra money, off the back of advice from behavioural economists.

People would be likely to save a cheque, but were not necessarily going to do the same with the few dollars it amounted to every week.

“There was only one problem,” Olen highlights. “Again, it made this assumption that people would know what was going on, and in fact they didn’t. The polling data showed they had no clue that they were getting this tax break, and that might partly have been because health insurance costs continued to go up through this entire period. In many cases, people saw less money in their pay cheques.”

Mixed messaging

“The administration did not really know how to promote itself, which was kind of funny because when they first came in, it was the first social media campaign, the first internet campaign,” Olen notes. “They just assumed that people would figure this out or look this up, or that they would find out about their raise because they were reading the front page of the New York Times, and of course most people weren’t doing that.”

For those mistakes, Obama and the Democrats have paid a heavy price, as Trump’s victory may well see many of the measures taken by his administration struck down. However, there may be a tougher battle ahead than Paul Ryan et al. first anticipated.

“Republicans are really confronting the difficulty right now of taking health insurance away from 20 million Americans,” Kliff stated. "I think they have been campaigning on repeal, and it was very easy to pass repeal bills when president Obama was in office, because they knew he was going to veto them.

“They are really going to struggle - and already are struggling - with this question that keeps coming up: ‘Are your plans going to cover as many people as the healthcare law currently does'. I’ve been asking Republican senators that question and they are not very enthusiastic to answer it, they don’t know the answer to that yet.”

With a grueling map ahead of them in 2018, the task that lies ahead for Democrats is one in which they will need the enthusiasm and fervour that characterised Obama's first campaign, and which was markedly absent from Hillary Clinton's. Championing a cause such as healthcare could be key in driving people to the polls and helping them to gain back lost ground.  

Although the act that bore his name looks set to disappear, whatever proposal the Republicans put forward will likely be judged by the public on whether or not it can cover as many people as the Affordable Care Act. Obama's greatest legacy could be that he changed how American people view healthcare, even if it ends up having Trump branding on it instead.