Obama: A brand in search of a slogan


Everyone knows what Barack Obama’s campaign slogan was in 2008. No one seems to know what it will be for 2012. The White House has been cycling through catchphrases since announcing his reelection bid a year ago: Winning the Future, We Can’t Wait, An America Built to Last, An Economy Built to Last, A Fair Shot.

They seem to be looking for one to resonate — and the constant unveiling of new ones suggests that so far, none of them have. To communications experts, the kaleidoscope of slogans is the latest reflection of the difficulties finding and marketing a message that Obama has faced almost since his inauguration — another challenge that came with the shift from insurgent outsider to sitting president.

“He’s all over the place,” said Bruce I. Newman, the Bill Clinton brand-messaging adviser whose “Bridge to the 21st Century” helped define Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign. Yes, a slogan is just a few words for the background of campaign lit and stump speeches. But its importance, Newman explained, shouldn’t be understated.

“That becomes the branding of the whole campaign,” he said. “That becomes the anchor to bring together disparate voter segments. It’s the glue, if you will.” An Obama aide said all the lines the president has rolled out so far were around specific governing initiatives and not intended to be campaign slogans, and the GOP primaries have yet to settle on a candidate.

Campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said that though there may not be a slogan yet, there has been a focus on a singular theme. “The President is working to ensure that our economy is built to last — where hard work and responsibility are rewarded, everybody does their fair share, and everyone from Main Street to Wall Street plays by the same set of rules. Mitt Romney has doubled down on the same policies that led to the economic crisis — he believes that we can just cut our way to prosperity and promotes outsourcing, loopholes and risky financial deals that put the security of the middle class at risk,” LaBolt said in a statement, nodding at the “fair shot” idea the president’s been hitting often since his Osawatomie, Kan., speech in December.

But Newman and others agree: The window for Obama to settle on a strong — and consistent — slogan is closing, no matter the continuing Republican primary campaign. Ronald Reagan locked down “Morning in America” in May 1984, leaving a full six months for his campaign to hammer home the message before the election.

“The thing that made it effective was that they had it up early,” said Michael Goldman, a Democratic communications consultant whose past clients include Michael Dukakis and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. “Before the Democrats had even nominated [Walter] Mondale, he had already made that the thematic of his campaign.” To date, Obama and his advisers have largely been defining themselves through contrast messaging — senior adviser David Plouffe called the GOP field a “clown show,” and Obama’s been casting of himself as the sober voice arrayed against irresponsible and hapless opponents.

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