As former President Barack Obama strolled by reporters during a visit to the White House earlier this month, he was asked what he’d tell Democrats facing daunting midterm elections.
“We’ve got a story to tell, just got to tell it,” Obama said.
As he often did during his presidency, Obama claimed Democrats simply needed to message better and their problems may well be solved. Two days earlier, Hillary Clinton had told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “we’ve got a great story to tell. And we need to get out there and do a better job of telling it.”
At times, mainstream media outlets have also pushed that narrative as Democrats try to hold onto the House and Senate in an environment with an unpopular President Biden, record inflation and the Russian invasion of Ukraine dominating headlines.
“Democrats and supportive media believe not only in the righteousness of their cause but also in their superior intellect. With such a world view and lack of introspection, it is easier for them to focus on messaging than questioning their own views and policies,” Cornell Law School professor Williams A. Jacobson told Fox News Digital.
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The Washington Post’s story Monday, headlined, “Democrats approach a midterm message but struggle to deliver it,” suggested the party was arriving at a suitable contrast with Republicans, but just isn’t able to get it out there.
“Even the president has acknowledged he is struggling to convey to voters what his administration has accomplished, including a covid relief package, an infrastructure bill and creating millions of jobs,” the Post reported.
Last month, NBC News correspondent Yamiche Alcindor fretted that the White House has a “real messaging issue” with the Biden administration’s “Putin’s Price Hike” campaign not resonating with Americans as they struggle financially with inflation.
A WBUR headline from January read, “The Democrats’ messaging problem, and how to fix it.”
“From infrastructure spending to subsidized child care, the Biden administration has agenda items with mass appeal. So why do so many Americans believe the U.S. is headed in the wrong direction?” the article lamented.
NewsBusters managing editor Curtis Houck believes blaming messaging instead of policy is nothing new.
“It’s become an age-old excuse for liberals and their media allies whenever something doesn’t go their way: If it’s not due to the stupidity of voters, it’s just that they didn’t do a good enough job explaining how auspicious and fantastical their ideas are and what they would do to greatly improve their livelihoods,” Houck told Fox News Digital.
“Accountability could almost be inscribed in a foreign language for these people, but they certainly know what it means because they so often demand it of their adversaries and enemies,” Houck continued. “And when it is metered out, you see so-called journalists like Dan Rather and Brian WIlliams who emerge and are treated as if nothing happened.”
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Following a bruising loss by Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor’s race to Republican Glenn Youngkin, New York Times’ Jeremy Peters asked, “Do Democrats Have a Messaging Problem?” In that race, Youngkin ran as a champion of fed-up parents, opposing critical race theory and coronavirus school closings, eventually pulling off an upset to become the first Republican to win the governor’s race there since 2009.
“The nuances of critical race theory, which focuses on the ways that institutions perpetuate racism, and the hyperbolic tone of the coverage of the issue in conservative news media point to why Democrats have struggled to come up with an effective response,” Peters wrote.
MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace, visibly angry on election night when Youngkin won, fumed critical race theory “isn’t real” and yet the issue had helped Youngkin make heavy gains with suburban Virginia women who helped oust Donald Trump in 2020. Liberal Los Angeles Times writer Jackie Calmes complained that month Democrats had a “messaging problem” and the mainstream media was far tougher on Democrats than conservative media was on Republicans.
She quoted left-wing Lincoln Project adviser Stuart Stevens, who suggested the American people didn’t see how well things were going by citing jobs and vaccine numbers. “5 million jobs added, a record. 220m vaccines in 10 months. And only 30% of country think US is on right track. The Democratic Party has a huge messaging problem,” he tweeted at the time.
This appears to be a longstanding complaint from Calmes as she wrote in The New York Times back in 2010 ahead of the midterms that Democrats are “lacking a unifying message to address the lackluster economy, scrambling to come up with further job-creating remedies and out of time to show substantial results before voters go to the polls.”
MSNBC political analyst Susan Del Percio said Democrats were simply too wonky while on an MSNBC panel last November with liberal host Brian Williams on the Virginia loss.
“Republicans boil things down into, you know, inflation, you’re facing inflation, whereas Democrats want to give you an Economics 101 lesson into why you may see inflation but it’s really not that bad,” she said.
DePauw University journalism professor and media critic Jeffrey McCall believes messaging is a “huge part” of the political arena as long as it’s legitimate.
“The most effective messaging has to have a connection to effective decision making and results. Otherwise, it is just trying to make people believe what isn’t really there, or in other words, propaganda,” McCall told Fox News Digital.
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“Americans generally have the common sense to know what policies are working and which are not. When inflation is high, crime is on the rise, the border is in chaos, and international affairs are confused, no amount of messaging can convince Americans that everything is fine,” McCall added. “Politicians and the media can downplay these problems or try to put a happy face on them, but that rhetorical sleight of hand can only last for so long.”
In 2016, Hillary Clinton was often portrayed as a candidate who was simply unknowable to the American people as she struggled with low approval numbers, with reporters and pundits often saying she needed to “re-introduce herself” to the public. Clinton, at that time, had been on the national scene since 1992 as First Lady, U.S. Senator, Secretary of State, and the Democratic nominee for the presidency.
Outlets as MSNBC, ABC News, CBS News, Bloomberg, Vox, The Guardian pushed the “re-introduce” phrase as she sought the presidency.
Shortly after a Republican romp in the 2014 midterms, Obama mourned on “Face The Nation” that “we have not been successful in going out there and letting people know what it is that we are trying to do and why this is the right direction.” Obama similarly said the public’s issues with how his administration fought the Islamic State, how he rolled out Obamacare and the greatest mistake of his first term in office boiled down to messaging.
“When I think about what we’ve done well and what we haven’t done well,” Obama said in 2012, “the mistake of my first term – couple of years – was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. And that’s important. But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.”
A piece from The New Republic following the 2014 midterms, in which the GOP made big gains in Congress, had the headline, “Democrats Had a Winning Message in 2012—and Promptly Forgot It in 2014.” The Democratic National Committee agreed, determining in a postmortem report released in 2015 that the party lacked a “single narrative” to prevent Democrats from maintaining control of the Senate following the 2014 midterms.
Even back in 2010, the media relied on the “Democrats lack messaging” trope during the rise of the Tea Party movement that led to a red wave in the House of Representatives.
In the months leading up to the 2010 midterms, FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver warned Democrats in January of that year they “need a proactive messaging strategy,” writing in bold text, “the Democrats need to figure out what their November messages are now and begin planting seeds for them now.”
That April, The Atlantic writer Marc Ambinder asked, “Who Are Democrats Messaging to?” asserting the party’s message is “good” for the Obama coalition, but wondered “does it work for the midterm electorate — particularly this midterm electorate?”
Following the election, a piece published by CBS News cited “mixed midterm messages” as one of the reasons “Why Democrats Lost the House to Republicans.”