Saturday, December 3, 2022

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    Joe Biden as strategist: lessons for managing a brand through unprecedented times

    If you’re looking for leadership lessons, why not look straight to the top? Rob Shepardson, political strategist and co-founder of M&C Saatchi agency SS+K, looks at the playbook of president Biden. Drawing on experience working for the Obama and Biden White Houses, he also gives us a rare insight into the commander-in-chief’s next moves.

    Defying history, battling an authoritarian-led opposition and digging out from record-low job approval ratings, Joe Biden now has a fighting chance of keeping control of the US house of representatives and, possibly, winning an outright majority in the senate. 

    This turn of events wasn’t obvious a few months ago. Unanticipated events buffeted the best of plans (anti-vaxxers and Covid control, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and spiking gas and grocery prices). Enduring problems seem intractable (inequality, guns, homelessness). Add to this militant populism, rampant disinformation, deep tribalism, an erosion of norms and a 50/50 senate. This White House has navigated challenges more complex and consequential than any marketing executive could envision.  

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    How did Biden manage through this chaos? If you’re guiding a brand through our challenging world, here are a few lessons from his playbook…

    1. Vision

    Candidate Biden said in 2020 that he wanted to “restore the soul of the nation [a phrase he first used back in 2017] … united in our pursuit of a more perfect union.” President Biden restates this often. As recently as September 1 in Philadelphia, he called his work the “continued battle for the soul of the nation.”

    Some say it could be more inspiring, but Americans want decency and values-based practical solutions, not more high-decibel rhetoric.

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    2. Differentiation

    Biden now draws contrasts with the Trump-controlled Republican party. He has called the MAGA (‘Make America Great Again’) party “semi-fascist” and “sickening” for supporting political violence. He’s forced a choice by defining what’s at stake, what he stands for and what Trumpism means for the average American. 

    3. Substance

    Policy makes vision personal. Here, Biden’s on a winning streak: he’s passed bills to bring jobs and the supply chain back from China, reduce healthcare and prescription drug costs, fund clean energy jobs and more. All this signals his intent to save democracy by delivering results. 

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    4. Storytelling

    The White House’s message follows the five-part narrative structure: tension, victims, villain, heroes and building towards a resolution (or vison, as above).

    This is storytelling executed through an ‘all of the above’ unified communications strategy. It ranges from national prime-time speeches to intimate gatherings; from national advertising (including this spot, by our firm, to celebrate Biden’s one-year anniversary) to highly-targeted social media of all kinds.

    5. Discipline

    Biden’s election platform in 2020 targeted working families (“the backbone of the nation”) and seniors. He’s maintained that focus while expanding his governing agenda to include issues from the left after the election.  

    But discipline doesn’t mean rigidity. After Roe v Wade was overturned, he has sprinkled in a progressive-developed message of personal freedom that both middle-of-the-road Americans and lefties support, along the lines of: ‘The MAGA movement will take away your rights (abortion, voting), your benefits (affordable healthcare, student debt relief) and maybe other freedoms (marriage equality, contraception).’

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    What next for Biden?

    To be sure, strong headwinds remain; some recent polls have swung toward the Republicans. We’ll know soon what happens in the midterms. But it isn’t too soon to consider what might happen in Biden’s presumed re-election bid in 2024.  

    The White House will do all it can to mitigate supply chain damage from Covid and Russia, and to maintain high employment. It believes Biden’s historic fiscal stimulus and legislative accomplishments will continue to pay dividends. The 2024 economy is the wild card. The White House hopes the Federal Reserve will keep inflation down without triggering job loss or a recession. 

    But it’s a safe bet that MAGA’s positioning will continue to scare Independents and soft Republicans. Some Republican candidates are paying attention; a few have distanced themselves from Trump’s voter fraud rhetoric and MAGA’s abortion positions. 

    We can assume Biden, like all effective presidents, will keep playing the long game, focused on his strategic plan. Losing control of congress in the midterms won’t help, but political physics suggests the Republicans might overreach, sharpening the contrast Biden has created.

    Presidents Reagan and Obama came back from terrible economies, very low poll numbers and midterm losses to win a second term. Maybe Biden’s strategy, coupled with a productive economy and an extreme opposition, will convince most Americans he deserves the same.

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