Obama losing control of his narrative? Then why is Berlusconi successfully holding his?

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It seems that, during his first year in office, President Obama is progressively losing control of his narrative.

It also seems that Italy’s Berlusconi is, instead, holding on to his narrative with success.

Is the ‘cuckoo’ public relations model more effective than the ‘social media’ public relations one?

Last Sunday two very different articles from the New York Times made me think about this issue and attempt to suggest a rational (if at all possible..) explanation.

Tom Friedman is surprised that, last week in Davos, various members of the international business community asked him, for the first time ever, clarifications about the current US political instability….

Ever since I was a kid, I have been accustomed to being asked a similar question related to Italy by my international acquaintances.

A question to which I had a very compelling and convincing response: the Italian post second world war political system has been by far the most stable and predictable in Europe because, no matter how many governments went in and out, it really was only a game of ‘musical chairs’: the same political personnel governed the country for decades until 1994.

Which does not mean it was particularly efficient, nor effective, but it never really witnessed discontinuities like other European countries.

Today they don’t ask me this any more, because -if at all curious about a country which is quickly sliding into benign (?) neglect- they prefer to ask me about our growing racism, our growing organised crime, our growing vulgarity and sexism….

Richard Stevenson instead says that Obama’s narrative has become increasingly ungraspable given the huge number of issues on the agenda and their complexity.

The American public is not used to today’s unprecedented and frontal bi-party conflict which has developed every inch of the way, and is clearly confused by the complication (not the complexity, mind you…. and for us public relators it is essential to make this distinction) of the arguments coming from the two sides.

Because of the conflict, they both tend to be manifestly manipulative, and therefore individuals and groups do not now who to believe and in any case, every time one of the two sides comes out with a reasonable argument, the other side immediately reacts with other reasonable counter arguments which demean the former.

Confusion reigns, and quite clearly Obama has not been able to make that highly important distinction between complexity (thus naturally inducing simplicity) and complication (thus naturally inducing counterclaims).

Italy also has (and has been having since at least 1994..i.e. 16 years!) a growing conflict not only between the two poles but also within each of the two (Italy has a bi polar and not a bi party system, which implies that more parties with identity issues and urgencies coexist in each pole…thus ‘complicating’ political narrative).

The aggressiveness has reached levels which tea party or radical American groups have yet to even come near to….

Nonetheless Berlusconi grows in his strong hold of political narrative and his personal popularity today is rated between 61% (polls commissioned by his opponents) and 68% (polls commissioned by him).

In attempting a rational answer to this, at least apparent, ‘conundrum’, I would suggest that:

a- Italians have had now 16 years of aggressive, slanderous, un justified and un comprehensible conflict amongst political parties and do not pay much attention. The single biggest political party expected to emerge from the coming late February Regional elections is the sum of non voters and voluntary abstentions;

b- While Obama’s narrative basically requires his decreasing followers to advocate sacrifices on behalf of the public good in what is considered to be a highly individualistic and self concerned culture, Berlusconi’s narrative explicitly invites his increasing followers -in what is considered to be a collectivistic culture- to evade taxes, have fun and sex, implant artificial hair to avoid baldness, use high heel shoes to appear taller, be rich, play games, tell dirty stories, play cuckoo to international leaders and, of course, repeal and kick out other ethnicities.

Ok, I agree, reality is never as simple as this.

But I need to be coherent and professional by simplifying complex issues without complicating them.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Toni,
    Your over-simplification may have some resonnance with the Italian psche? Maybe the dolce vita is hard coded in your DNA and Berlusconi is the champion and perhaps an extreme example of ‘I do what I want’ politics?
    He seems to not care about changing his course to please a politicaly correct minority. I’m not saying I admire him. But he seems to have found a formula that works for him by staying his course and damn the torpedos. I wonder what it will take for public opinion to trun against him.

    Obama on the other hand, perhaps because of his social media skills, is listening and adjusting his speech and policies based on what he hears. I do think his political discourse does require soem form of ‘sacrifice for the greater good’ as you put it and that is always more difficult to push forward in a bi-partican environment. A bit like trying to push a rope up a hill.
    He also has a very strong political machine against him on his main policies. The fact is that he needs public opinion on his side to move anything forward.
    Berlusconi doesn’t care based on his strong personal popularity. Would it not take an odious public policy to rally opposition and public opinion against him? I’m not a close follower of Italian politics so I ask you what controversial public policies has he intorduced? what was the reaction? Or is he shrewd enough to avoid extreme public policies? maybe you can enlighten us on that.
    Anyway, you have asked a questions that has many possible answers-all based on opinions and perceptions.
    I will be interested to see what others think.

  2. Toni, You ask some thought-provoking questions. But I think it is comparing apples and pears to cover the two leaders in the same breath. It implies that somehow the answer for one relates to the other, and I don’t think that’s true.

    I constantly wonder at Berlusconi’s ability to hang on. I have no pretension of explaining how he does it. Maybe it is as simple as Italians sharing your perception of the musical chairs game and thinking it therefore doesn’t matter WHO is Prime Minister, so they are trying to at least obtain some entertainment value.

    Another simple explanation is that with Berlusconi, at least Italy is in the global headlines, for better or worse, and that may appeal to the Italian sense of pride.

    With regard to Obama, part of the problem is a basic law of physics: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Expectations were so very high when he was elected, that it is not surprising that the reality of what he has been able to accomplish when actually governing in a very difficult period has created disillusionment for a large number of people. (Indeed, I think one of the best ways to de-romanticize fringe opposition parties is for them to be given responsability.)

    I think there is another factor at play: the United States has long been a highly ideological country. Because the conciliatory approach and fragmented agenda of the Obama Administration does not provide a ready vent for that ideological fervor, the old stand-by of Big Government is a ready target (and not completely without reason as pointed out by the articles in The Economist this week).

    Too many of the issues on the table can only be addressed in the long term, and there have not been enough quick wins to keep the public engaged. If they are smart, the Administration will make adjustments following the vote in Massachusetts that will focus on achieving some constructive outcomes in a nearer term. The narrative will change somewhat, but that focus should result in improved approval ratings.

  3. Jean and Kristen,
    thank you for expressing your opinions.

    Allow me to reiterate the basic issue I tried to make:
    one thing is to ask a tradizional individualistic people (americans) to agree to individual sacrifices for the good of others (not necessarily the ‘greater good’ Jean, simply others…), and another is to walk the talk by showing that no matter how much a charismatic leader indulges in generally reproachable public/private behaviours (not opinions or perceptions, Jean..) in a traditional collectivistic society (italy), as long as the latter satisfy what my catholic friends would define as the temptation of evil….individuals are strongly attracted, of course if the leader actually wals the talk…

    Having said this, it is clear that the significant consequences on the communication narrative of the leaders of the two countries (ye, of course they are apples and pears Kristen, but from a communication perspective, so are the practices of.. pepsi and coke…).

    Under Bush, under Clinton, the other Bush and most of the preceding amercian presidents, it is difficult to find prolonged periods of aggressiveness amongts the two parties as today…and this alarms international observers (the italain disease?), whereas in Italy such aggressiveness stems from the fact that while the conservatives still fail to recognize legitimacy to ex communists to govern (political analysts attribute to Berlusconi’s aggressive anticommunism tha basic factor of his success), the latter do not, in turn, recognize legitimacy to govern to fascists and to plurindicted premiers. To the point that scandals are often prefabricated from both sides.

    Similarly to the health reform debate in the US, Berlusconi has been basically occupying most of his time, the time of his cabinet and the time of the two branches of parliament, since he was elected a year and a half ago, to change the judiciary (and there are very good reasons to do this, besides his reason..which is to ensure his own personal immunity).

    So yes, Jean, there are highly complex issues on the table of the political debate in Italy, not excluding the real emergencies (jobs, migration, housing, increasing poverty, education and research…) which are hardly attended to.

    Both Obama and Berlusconi are very careful followers of public opinion polls, but the difference is that while Obama has a very challengin and forceful agenda of his own, to the point of pushing despite what opinion polls tell him in the morning, Berlusconi draws his agenda and even the nitty gritty detalis of his narrative from his four every morning polls.

    However one may feel about Obama, it is striking that he is not making much ground, while the italian is increasing his hold.
    One of course may sterotype and say, like my old friend Giorgio Bocca (just turned ninety and one the three pillars of italian post war journalisms..the others being Indro Montanelli and Eugenio Scalfari)that the Italian people are lost to what we refer to as the civilised world, or -as I tried in this, yes Jean, over simplification to try and understand how political narratives which require personal sacrifices are more difficult to push than those who respond to the not even gut but fecal aspirations of the mass.

    Back to Bernays?

  4. You say Obama is losing control of his narrative. I ask what was that narrative beyond some vague notion of “time for change”? The problem with Obama is that he’s missing his moment to take “charge”. There’s a culture war going on in the USA and he’s gone walkabout. Or at best he’s semi-detached, as in trying to lean both ways, pleasing nobody.

  5. Paul, may I (not the first time..) radically disagree with your easy cinicism?
    Please go and read Obama’s electoral platform and read any one of his more memroable campaign speeches.
    He was elected president of the united states on a platform which any european socialist party would never have dared to submit even ten, fifteen years ago!
    The narrative was there, it was outspoken and perfectly understandable.
    What you define as the ‘vague notion of time for change’ is a rwo cent comic book interpretation of his campaign.
    Come on….as much as I understand that you might not like it, you should, particularly in a difficult moment like this, at least acknowledge and recognize that not even roosevelt succeded in being elected on such a progressive platform…

  6. Toni, Republicans at their Tea Party rallies would have us believe that Obama is a socialist. He’s not.

    Moreover, I read his speeches. They lacked substance, while being works of genius in terms of style and delivery. That’s why today he has no strategy even though he has a majority in both houses. He’s like a rabbit caught in the headlights, as he’s defeated by an opposition that just has to threaten a filibuster, rather than deliver one, to scupper his plans. Obama has no compass and as a result he is easy to knock off course.

    I fear he will prove to be a one-term president who sold hope and didn’t deliver much (this experience might even lead us to reappraise George W Bush’s leadership in a more positive light).

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