NEW YORK--Former White House communications chief Anita Dunn believes that Barack Obama must revisit the communications lessons of the 2008 presidential campaign if he wishes to be re-elected in 2012.
Dunn, who now runs SKD Knicerbocker, made the comments while addressing a session of the Arthur Page Society’s Spring Seminar. Dunn was senior communications strategist for President Obama’s 2008 campaign, before becoming White House communications director.
President Obama embarked on his bid for re-election earlier this week, after seeing key approval ratings slump during his first term.
“I think he needs to return to the principles that got him elected,” said Dunn. “That doesn’t mean run the same campaign. If we do that we will lose.”
Specifically, Dunn pointed to three campaign commitments that helped elect Obama in the first place: To change the culture of Washington; to put the interests of ordinary families ahead of special interests; and to tell people what they needed (rather than wanted) to hear.
These, she said, had to be delivered with transparency, authenticity and engagement. In Obama’s new re-election video, Dunn believes the most important person is “the man who says I don’t agree with him but I believe he’s trustworthy. That goes to his reputation core.”
“He needs to be seen as a person who genuinely wants to look for the best ideas from both sides of the political spectrum,” said Dunn. “Who genuinely and authentically talks to people about what they need to know. Who genuinely and incrementally brings real change to the way Washington works.”
T”he change people were looking for, and he’s going to need to demonstrate to get re-elected, has got to be much more fundamental about the culture of Washington.”
Dunn added that many of Obama’s first-term communications struggles arose because “we got to the White House and promptly lost sight of all of our principles.”
“At the end of the day, were we engaging in a transparent and authentic way? No.”
She also noted that the loss of the 2008 campaign’s 13-million strong online community also hampered communication efforts. “We couldn’t take their names to the White House. None of us had actually thought this through in the way we could have. It does illustrate the importance of community. We lost a huge part of our competitive advantage from the campaign.”
In response to a question from the floor, meanwhile, Dunn admitted that the team’s “single biggest communications mistake” was to launch the healthcare bill in May 2009, after expending so much effort on passing four huge spending bills. “Here’s one more thing with a huge price tag, that may not work because nothing seems to be working right now.”