If U.S. President Barak Obama were a brand, he'd be in trouble right now, according to some observers. But faculty from Emory University and its Goizueta Business School are not so quick to count him out.
Like a product that starts out strong only to see its sales sputter, Obama entered the White House on a tide of high hopes and garnered a Nobel Peace Prize within months of his ascension to America's highest elected office. Yet despite admirable performances like snatching the economy back from the brink of a depression and tackling problem issues like health care that had been avoided for decades, his recent ratings in the polls are weakening, and even some fellow Democrats are rebelling against him.
At the start of his second year in the Oval Office, 50% of Americans approve of his overall job performance while 44% disapprove, according to a January 6 report by polling and consulting firm Gallup Inc.
This is well below the 68% approval rating Obama received in his first few days as president, and matches his average for all of December-which included many days when public support for him fell slightly below that important [50%] symbolic threshold, Gallup announced.
Obama's initial approval rating in his second year as president is among the lowest for elected presidents since Dwight Eisenhower, according to Gallup. Only [former president] Ronald Reagan-who, like Obama, took office during challenging economic times-began his second year in office with a lower approval score [49%].
The significance of the low numbers may be open to debate. Reagan, for example, won reelection despite his record-low poll numbers, while President George H. W. Bush lost his bid for a second term despite capturing an 80% voter approval rate at the beginning of his second year in office.
To some extent, the personality cult that was built up around President Obama is now responsible for a backlash, says Jagdish Sheth, a chaired professor of marketing at Goizueta and a corporate strategist. Over time, it can be very difficult to manage a personality brand that assumes a cult-like status, as Obama's initially did.
The expectations surrounding Obama were so high to begin with that some falloff was almost inevitable, Sheth notes.
The public expected uniform performance on such a wide range of disparate issues, including domestic, foreign and economic challenges, while in reality it's very difficult to successfully deal with them all, especially in a nation that seeks instant gratification. Many of the issues he's tackling are too complex for quick solutions.
The challenge to Obama's brand image is exacerbated by the fact that when a person, product or company becomes the focus of a cult-like brand-as happened with Obama-the subject often becomes trapped in a kind of public fishbowl, where every move is subject to scrutiny.
Other presidents, including Lincoln, Roosevelt and JFK in the U.S., and de Gaulle and Gandhi in India, had a cult-like following, Sheth says. But in those days a compliant press and the lack of widespread, instant media made it a lot easier for the respective administrations to manage their image.
In contrast, today's ratings-obsessed media is much more aggressive-or partisan according to some-while the Internet gives just about any individual the ability to inexpensively broadcast his or her opinion to a global audience, bypassing traditional channels and controls.
People have always been curious about the lives of star performers, whether they're entertainers, sports figures or politicians, Sheth observes. With the ever-increasing ability to instantly access their movements, people become even more curious about the stars and their personal lives.
So while Obama the president may be tackling tough economic and political challenges, the public may instead focus on issues ranging from the first lady's fashion sense to whether or not the president has a valid U.S. birth certificate.
In this atmosphere, lifestyle and performance are becoming increasingly blurred, Sheth says. Tiger Woods is an excellent example. He may still be the world's number one golfer, but his personal actions have made him radioactive, driving top sponsors to flee from him.
In Obama's case, the lagging economy, the tussle over health care reform and the inability to quickly extricate the U.S. from controversies involving Afghanistan and Iran-all long-term issues-have overshadowed his accomplishments, which include integrating global leadership and reconnecting the U.S. with international leaders, especially ones from emerging economies like Russia, India, and Brazil, Sheth says.
But Sheth also points out that Obama too often is not willing to take charge of his own destiny. He tends to be reactive instead of proactive.
Instead of crafting a policy based on voter polls, Sheth suggests that Obama would do better to stress the long-term benefits he seeks to deliver.
There are three steps Obama can take, Sheth advises. First, instead of simply reacting to public opinion, he should shape it, providing people with a systematic plan of action.
Second, he could develop a broad-based team of respected political, economic and other observers able to talk up his image and deliver a unified, positive message backing up his actions.
Finally, Obama the man could promote his image in a multifaceted manner, Sheth says. He can be more forthcoming in his personal and family accomplishments, in addition to his presidential accomplishments. The U.S. and the world are looking at him in a holistic way, and he can respond in a similar manner.
But the outpouring of support that got Obama elected may now be working against him, cautions Paul H. Rubin, a chaired professor of economics at Emory University.
Obama's relatively large plunge in popularity is likely due to the fact that people expected a lot from him and became upset when he didn't deliver, Rubin says. He talked like a non-partisan person, but in fact was always highly partisan, with one of the most liberal voting records in the Senate. As people begin to understand this, they are becoming disillusioned.
The president should be worried about the public's perception of his image, says Tim Halloran, an adjunct marketing instructor at Goizueta who is also the president of Brand Illumination, an Atlanta-based marketing and brand management consultancy. Regardless of the actual achievements he has or has not achieved, Obama should be concerned about the public perception as reflected in his poll numbers.
On his road to the White House, Obama and his team created one of the strongest brands compared to any other U.S. candidate in presidential history, Halloran notes. Regardless of whether you agree with his politics, it is clear that from a brand perspective, he did all the right things, including remaining consistent on a simple core message of change. It was a stellar campaign that identified and connected with his target market of young and unaffiliated voters.
But a year later, a significant percentage of voters appear to think Obama didn't live up to his brand promise, Halloran warns.
Obama's initial message was clear and simple, but now the public appears to be confused over his handling of issues like health care, he adds. Branding is all about maintaining a consistent message that's easily understood.
A solution would likely involve getting back to basics, according to Halloran, who says the president and his advisers need to look back and research exactly what drove voters to prefer him to challengers.
They need to identify what the support drivers were and act on those issues, Halloran adds. Right now the perception, at least, is that there's still no comprehensive solution to key issues like the economy, terrorism, and health care, all of which were key campaign branding issues.
But what if there are no simple solutions to these complex problems?
If Obama simply can't deliver quickly on some promises, he should focus on other attributes that voters may see in a more positive light, Halloran suggests. For example, people want a strong national leader, especially during times of uncertainty. Obama presented that image during the campaign, and burnishing it now might revive his brand.
At this point Obama needs a game-changing strategy that will regain the yes we can momentum that got him elected, Halloran says.
In a typical product launch, you first try to stoke consumer awareness, then you want the target audience to try the new product, he explains. Obama's already reached those preliminary goals by getting elected. In the next stage, you want consumers to repeatedly purchase the product, which can build their long-term loyalty. That's the level that Obama's got to get to now. But he's not there right now, and the numbers show that voters, or his 'consumers,' are having buyers' remorse.
It's not just his reelection bid that's riding on this. As president, Obama is the quarterback of the Democrats, and to a significant extent the party's performance in the upcoming congressional elections is riding on him.
If your product doesn't deliver, consumers will try your competition, Halloran says. It doesn't matter if it's cereal or politics.
But Andra Gillespie, an assistant political science professor at Emory, says Obama shouldn't be staying up at night worrying about his ratings.
For one thing, they're not that dismal, she says. His ratings may be off their peak, but he's not the only president to score low numbers. Obama's approval levels are not as low as Truman and Bush's approval ratings at their worst.
Also, unlike some past presidents, Obama the man is genuinely liked by many people, even some who may have issues with Obama the president. This may yield goodwill that Obama can tap as he tries to implement a far-reaching agenda.
Finally, Obama came into office a relative unknown, yet the prospect of electing the nation's first black president gave this political race additional issues beyond the ones usually associated with a presidential campaign.
Many people projected their hopes onto Obama, Gillespie observes. He rode in on an aura of hope that may have reflected at least some unrealistic expectations. For a time, some people may have forgotten human and presidential limits, and now there's something of a backlash as reality sets in.
Despite that, Gillespie doesn't think Obama should worry excessively over his poll numbers.
The danger is that a politician can get so caught up in brand management concerns that he or she focuses on those issues to the exclusion of the business of running the national government, she cautions. A successful leader bases his or her policies on the underlying issues, not on the likely effect on their popularity.
In fact, although Obama's health care and other programs have helped to create a significant degree of controversy, staying the course instead of backing off could yield dividends, Gillespie says.
Taking bold but unpopular steps now, when he has a majority in Congress, not only enhances the odds of getting his programs passed, but also gives voters more time to gauge the effectiveness, she adds. If they work-and some of his early efforts regarding the economy and America's relationships with other nations appear to support the president's judgment-then he's more likely to recover by the 2012 elections. Had he waited to implement his ideas, he might have faced a tougher time getting them passed in the first place, since in recent weeks some key Democrats announced they won't stand for reelection, and the timing of any benefits stemming from Obama's initiatives might have been too late for his political recovery.
As an example, Gillespie points to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has sporadically taken heat from his first-term, July 2002 appointment of Joel I. Klein as the New York City school chancellor. Despite controversy over Klein's management style, voters reelected Bloomberg twice, in part because of improvements in the city's schools.
In the short term, society makes some politicians into celebrities, but in the long term, history will judge Obama on what he accomplishes, not his high or low brand ratings, Gillespie says. No one would advise him to completely ignore public opinion, but the public is also fickle, since people may quickly change their minds.
If Obama is concerned about an image-related issue, he shouldn't worry about something as simple as popularity, she adds.
As the nation's first minority president, Obama is making history, Gillespie observes. He has to fight against stereotypes and has to work particularly hard to be judged for his substance, rather than his form. He particularly needs to be sure to surround himself with political advisers who are focused on policy matters instead of simply on branding. One former president ignored that, and we ended up with Watergate.