Presidential Image Management

The 1996 Presidential Election was a decisive victory for Bill Clinton. At the same time, it was a decisive

victory for image management. His campaign remained positive and well organised and picked up 379 of the

538 (70%) Electoral College seats and the millions of dollars spent and the thousands of miles traveled paid

off. Clinton has his second term. Yet, this victory was not necessarily won through the best policies but

through a campaign strategy focused on managing the President’s image.

 

As visible media have become the dominant form of public communication in politics, so the candidate’s

message has moved away from word-content toward visible-image content. Indeed, many candidates have

won or lost campaigns for no other reason than their ability to projected an appealing image. Still, the Ronald

Reagan and Bill Clinton Presidencies have advanced the use of political persuasion through visible media with

their focus on image creation and control. Techniques used in marketing and product promotion to appeal to

personal and psycho-social need, have been demonstrated to be also useful in the selling of a President. The

need for a father, a leader, or even a listening friend, have all been addressed by either Reagan or Clinton in

their presidential persona.

 

While image management has been a factor in previous campaigns, Clinton has made an art of it, even to the

expense of concentrating on the issues. Whatever a candidate’s strategy, it effects both the issues they address

and the images they project. However, the Clinton Campaign showed a subtle but definite shift in paradigm

away from a concentration on the issues towards a concentration on the image.

 

To many, including Bob Dole, Clinton may have seemed like a political light-weight, with no substance to his

issues and with loyalties to no-one and nothing but the camera and public opinion ratings. Yet, this was not a

mistake nor bad campaign management but a change in style and approach.

 

For Clinton, it was all a matter of strategy. If he had wanted to debate the issues and communicate through the

press, there is no doubt that the White House could have presented an informative and rigorous argument. But

the Clinton team chose to concentrate on the visual media and image projection and, accordingly, use all the

communication techniques available to them. Popular appeal, rather than constituency appeal, and image

management rather than issue management, are intelligent strategies in an age an television.

 

Clinton is promoted as a popularist President. He is the friendly President. The man who cares. His smile, style

and dress are all managed for optimum returns and general appeal.

 

The Clinton campaign signals a style for campaigns yet to come. The speed of communication and the

realization that “a picture is worth a thousand words” translates into more focus on image projection and image

control and less on information and debate.

 

Truly, Clinton represents a new style of politics while Bob Dole represents the style and an age almost gone.

In many ways this campaign between the old man and the kid represented a philosophical fight between the

old era and the new. As David Maraniss of the Washington Post suggests; “Bob Dole [was the] last man

standing” among a generation of notable politicians. (Maraniss Oct 27, 1996) In contrast, Bill Clinton came in

first. Indeed, Clinton has moved beyond the policy papers and the drawn out legislative processes. Image

management is now the name of the game and Clinton plays it better than most.

 

In many ways, Clinton is the other side of the coin to Bob Dole. While Dole represents the hard-nosed astute

Congressional legislator, Clinton has developed an empathy with the people. He has an innate ability to identify

with mass audiences and as Maraniss points out; “It does not matter that his ‘I feel your pain’ performance art

has become a cliché mocked by cartoonists; it is an established part of his identity, as real in that sense as

Mean Ole Dole.” (Maraniss p15. 1996)

 

Clinton’s style of image management politics is further illustrated in the October, 1996, peace negotiations at

the White House between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Yasser Arafat. On Wednesday,

September 25, hostilities broke out between the Israelis and Arabs over the reopening of a tunnel near the Al

Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem. President Bill Clinton, taking advantage of the Middle East crisis, and in the

tradition of other Presidents, invited the Israeli and Arab leaders to meet on American neutral ground.

 

Arranging for Netanyahu and Arafat to meet over the weekend became a more powerful visual statement on

foreign policy than any amount of rhetoric on the subject. And, in the terms of political effort, it was easy. Bob

Dole was left holding his speech in the wings once again.

 

Truly, this election was about selling a President, or at least a presidential image.

Ronald Reagan, was known to his contemporaries as the ‘Teflon President’ because none of the many

accusations of impropriety seemed to stick, but he is also remembered as the 'great communicator'. As a

trained actor, Reagan brought a different approach to politics as his team sought to orchestrate the media and

Reagan’s presentations. He was a master at communication and played to the camera. The Clinton team,

seeing the success of Reagan’s image management, modeled their campaign approach on Reagan’s 1984

victory and had Clinton study video tapes of Reagan’s speeches. (Wilson Nov 7, 1996) Clinton’s presentation

and image was tailor made.

 

Clinton was first supported by the Democratic Party because of his appealing image and it is his image that

remained the controlling feature of his campaign. For the Clinton team it has always been about image. They

came into office by projecting the southern, young alternative to the old style money making big government.

The political commentator, Gore Vidal, once had portrayed Clinton and Gore as the Huck Finn and Tom

Sayer of politics. Clinton was portrayed as the man with simple and down to earth ideas and as the man who

would always be young at heart. (Vidal 1996) In many ways they seemed politically naive - but that was good:

It won votes.

 

Despite the accusations of the misappropriation and fraudulent management of funds, of an over meddling wife

and covert sexual relations, Clinton continued to hold onto strong leads in the polls for the several months

leading to the election. With particular reference to the President’s troubled past, an election exist poll showed

that while 59% of voters believed that Clinton had not told the full truth about the Whitewater affair, they

believed he is a good President. ( Wilson 1996, p.19) Again, the President’s image has been the decisive

factor. In the early stages of the Campaign voter opinion research showed strong feedback on the President’s

new image and the improved involvement of his wife, Hillary. For the Clinton’s, keeping the White House was

an image problem.

 

There is a famous picture of a young Clinton, meeting John Kennedy. While Kennedy may be considered

more sophisticated than Clinton, they have much in common, particularly in the area of creating a popular

image. Remember it was Kennedy who went on TV with Nixon in the now famous Presidential debates and

used this media to his advantage. Elections and campaigning were never to be the same.

 

Clinton, too, has placed his mark on political strategy. While some may complain about his style, his

communications management is a winning formula.

In a growing appreciation of the attitudes and values of particularly the female voter, the Clinton Campaign had

to seek not only to redefine Clinton as a man who would be President but redefine the kind of government he

represented. Accordingly, there was a move away from the familiar and distasteful conflict paradigm of

government to one of practical government and productive government. In the wake of the Cold War there is

no need for an adversarial approach any more and a ‘feminising’, or a ‘humanising’, of politics is now possible

with an accent on relationships. As Al Gore introduced Clinton at their election night victory the two men

stood hugging at the podium, something unimaginable of previous Presidents. (Wilson, 1996 p.20) Clinton not

only represents a new style but a new era for America and American politics.

Clinton’s image is that of a President who cares. He has made a virtue out of nurture as he presents himself as

a man who is listening to the concerns of average Americans. No doubt, this is a strong element in Bill

Clinton’s character but it could have been portrayed as a sign of weakness by an opposing candidate in

campaigns of old. For Clinton, it has been a strength in a time when the female vote is paramount to a

candidate’s success.

 

As a gender constituency, women make up the larger proportion of the voting population with 52% voting last

November and 54% voting in 1992. In addition, the female vote is important because women tend to have

weaker political allegiance, their vote is less predicable and they tend to make up their minds later in a

campaign than do men. (Caldwell, 1997, p.27) Accordingly, the accent on campaigning has turned to women

as men seem less likely to be effected in their voting by appeals to woman’s concerns. In Clinton, there is

evidence of a paradigm shift to image management and a ‘soft focus’ in a projecting a nurturing President in

order to gain the female vote. This ‘soft focus’, now also being used in advertising for consumer goods,

Caldwell suggests, tends to use “emotional appeals over hard, rational argument”. (Caldwell, 1997. p.27)

Clinton’s image was the central piece to his campaign strategy.

 

Yet, the time was right for a new style of President and a new approach. Alvin Toffler, in his book Creating a

New Civilisation, suggests that the world is moving into a new civilization based on information and

communication. People now have more communication options and mass society is being ‘demassified’ into a

variety of ‘publics’. All this has implications for electioneering, and for marketing in general.

 

As politicians seek to appeal to more specific target audiences, a variety of message genre are created with an

emphasis on emotional stimulus rather than information. That is, image creation is used to gain desired

emotional responses rather than necessarily intellectual assent.

 

A candidate now has to associate themselves with a ‘public’s’ existing values and attitudes rather than trying to

create new ones. Consequently, argument and political double-talk are a thing of the past. Simple direct

messages and images for association and emotional appeal is now the formula for visual media success.

 

Perhaps the real loser here, however, is truth. While it may be the first casualty of war, it certainly could be

said to be the first casualty of popularist campaigning. Yet, truth, as such, is not a consideration. The modern

strategic campaign is audience-message sensitive and truth is only another variable in the marketing mix. Truth,

is now a “perspective” and is presented with emotional appeal to align with the values of prescribed ‘publics’.

Accordingly, presenting the truth is a matter of which perspective is acceptable to a target audience. This is not

to suggest that there is no integrity in the message but that words and images carry meaning and the

communications process has in itself becomes a management exercise.

 

There is more to Bill Clinton and his campaign than is obvious and his friendly-caring approach is a very

intelligent use of visual media. Having worked on the Jerry Brown Senate Campaign and the Alan Cranston

Presidential Campaign, I am aware of the importance of a strategy and strategic thinking. Indeed, a strategy

effects every other aspect of a campaign. Methods and messages only have a place in a campaign as the

strategy gives them meaning and context. The lesson learned from the Clinton Campaign is that a strategy is no

longer just an action statement but also an image statement. Their strategy was not so much a statement of

what they were going to do as a image of who they were. Image management has become paramount in a new

age where public opinion is more powerful than public policy.

 

The October Presidential debates demonstrated how image has become the main ingredient in the message as

Clinton remained cool and polished and continued to build audience rapport. The best Dole could claim was

to have come out as equal value on the issues. Still, people don’t remember what they hear as much as what

they see. In this regard, Clinton has the appeal and the image. He also has the presidency.

 

The Clinton campaign successfully developed an approach started by Reagan and moved to develop an image

for Clinton as the caring President. His openness to people’s concerns became a virtue. When he spoke on

issues or even spoke to the Congress, it was always in the context of the ‘caring President’.

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References:


Caldwell, C., (1997) “Altered States” The Courier Mail, January 11, p.27.

Maraniss, D., (1996) “First and Last”, The Washington Post, October 27, p.9-15.

Toffler, A. (1995). Creating a New Civilization: The Politics of the Third Wave. Atlan, Kansas City.

Wilson. P., (1996)“Comeback Kid fashions victory from political adversity’, The Australian, p. 4, Nov.7.

Wilson, P. (1996) “Clinton’s Challenge”, The Weekend Australian, November 9-10, p.19-20.

Vidal, G. (1996). “The United States of Clinton.” The Australian Review, September 21-22, p. 1, 2.


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