The Hill: How to hold on to the House by Mark Penn

September 28, 2010

The selection of loopy Republican Senate nominees has given the Democrats their first serious opportunity in months to turn this election around to hold onto the House — a feat that would now be considered a major political victory no matter how slim the margin.

But capitalizing on these turns will take more than mocking negative ads — it will take a dash back to the center. The Democratic Congress is perceived as too far to the left to keep our fiscal house in order, safeguard our families or bring about needed jobs in the new economy. Its approval ratings are rock-bottom at 21 percent in the last New York Times / CBS News poll.

There is no doubt 2010 is looking more and more like 1994, when President Clinton’s series of legislative victories related to guns, trade and taxes boomeranged. Either President Obama acts now, or he will be faced with similar post-election choices that President Clinton faced in 1994.

The temptation on the Democratic side will be to nationalize the election with a broadside of attacks on the Republican Party, accusing the GOP of backing tax cuts for the wealthy. Making the election about class warfare has consistently been a loser for the Democrats, and this year will be no exception.

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The Huffington Post: Strategy Corner with Mark Penn: Time for Obama to Lift the BP Fog With a New Strategy

Published June 1, 2010

President Obama’s political career and clout have never been in a more perilous state than this week as he faces mounting crises, plummeting poll numbers, and solutions that remain just out of reach.

The list of problems has become almost endless — the BP spill is becoming Obama’s hostage crisis, and will likely hit 100 days without a solution; unemployment remains stuck at nearly 10 percent; either from desperation or isolation, Israel has created a new Mideast challenge; Iran has enough nuclear fuel for two nuclear bombs; north Korea is threatening south Korea; the deficit is exploding and the healthcare bill remains unpopular. And these are just the top level problems; as a result, administration press briefings sound somewhat like the old theme song from “Car 54, Where Are You?” — a show from my childhood. And Voters across the country are wondering if they underestimated the value of experience and crisis management as important attributes for their president.

Despite this litany of growing problems, the president spent just 3 hours in New Orleans before heading off to a weekend vacation, attempting to move the traditional Arlington Cemetery Memorial Day ceremonies to Chicago, where they were rained out, filling up the Drudge report. Equally surprising was the White House decision to wait three months to answer questions on the Sestek job offer, and then do so on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend.

So what’s a president to do facing these problems and midterms around the corner?

First, almost all of these problems are about substance, not style, branding or even communications. They can’t be addressed with press conferences and panels. The public is looking for direct and immediate action, thought out and taken by the an administration that acted boldly when it took office to prevent a possible depression.

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The Huffington Post: Strategy Corner by Mark Penn: Time for a New Kind of Bold from President Obama

Published April 20, 2010

The prediction that passage of health care followed by an impressive agenda of global nuclear and Wall Street regulatory reform would lift up the administration by showing aggressive leadership seems to be one of those strategies that looks good on paper but so far has not worked in practice.

President Obama’s ratings remain below 50 percent in the Gallup tracking and in most other polls. The prophesied bump from health care never materialized, and the polls show most Americans still oppose the health care plan, believing it will increase, not decrease, the cost of their care.

The administration’s calculus that unpopular legislative success can translate into big November wins simply doesn’t add up. Unless the administration finds a new path and a new strategy, they’re facing potential electoral retribution on a scale unseen since 1994, when sweeping GOP victories seriously constricted President Clinton’s legislative options.

To hold on to his majority, the President needs to make course corrections — It’s time for a new kind of bold from President Obama.

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MSNBC Morning Joe: Mark Penn says “President Obama has his mojo back”

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On Morning Joe today, Democratic strategist Mark Penn says “President Obama has his mojo back.” With the passage of the healthcare bill, he has shown he can get things done. Now he needs to keep the momentum going and press on with his other initiatives, including financial regulatory reform.

Watch the video now at MSNBC

The Huffington Post: Strategy Corner: The Health Care Jam by Mark Penn

Published March 5, 2010

The idea of jamming major legislation through Congress usually crops up whenever there’s serious popular desire for change, and equally serious Congressional resistance. In the past, reconciliation has typically only ever made it to the table when one factor of Congress — at the behest of special interests — has set themselves squarely in the path of popular legislation, threatening its passage with delays, obfuscation, and parliamentary maneuvers.

This has been true of just about every major fight I can recall, from gun safety measures to mandatory gas mileage requirements. In every case, the public debate had generated majority support, but Congress was blocking it because of special interests groups — and, every time, the president won a solid victory by overcoming the gridlock.

But, for better or worse, this is not the dynamic in health care today. The litmus test of solid public support remains unmet, making this new strategy a potentially dangerous political Molotov cocktail.

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Arkansas News: Obama should learn from Clinton says political strategist Mark Penn

Obama should learn from Clinton, political strategist says

What the Obama presidency needs now is “a good dose of Clintonism,” the chief strategist for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign said today.

Mark Penn, who first went to work for the Clintons in 1994 when then-President Bill Clinton hired him as an adviser following the Democratic Party’s dramatic losses in that year’s midterm elections, said Obama faces many of the same challenges President Clinton faced 16 years ago.

Clinton bounced back from those losses with “some small things like balancing the budget, reforming welfare and creating 24 million jobs,” Penn said during a talk at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.

Clinton learned from the 1994 losses and began “moving the country to the center in a way that people felt the president was listening to them,” Penn said, adding that Clinton’s successes could be traced back to the fact that he had clearly defined strategies.
“As you recall, President Clinton had a very clear economic strategy,” he said. “Elements of his economic strategy were popular; some were not so popular. He believed in expanding trade, he believed in expanding investment in infrastructure, education — math and science. He believed in closing the federal deficit. Those three elements were a strategy that everybody understood.”

Obama should follow suit, according to Penn…

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The Huffington Post: State of the Union Scorecard by Mark Penn

Published January 27, 2010

It’s the Super Bowl of politics – the SOTU is watched in some years by up to 60 million people, and it’s usually the President’s best opportunity to address the country, tell them his plan, and bolster his approval.

What could have been a rather sleepy affair has taken on new significance with the loss of the Massachusetts Senate race – it has added dramatic tension and probably 10 million more viewers. How will the president handle the Mass. defeat? What will he say about healthcare? Is he moving to the center?

President Bush generally got little out of his State of the Union addresses. President Clinton did best in 1996 and 1998 — one against the backdrop of the Gingrich government shutdown and the other at the start of the Monica Lewinsky revelations. Clinton successfully pushed back on his critics and reassured the nation in those two pivotal speeches.

President Obama now has to do the same.

But perhaps the biggest questions around President Obama are exactly which course is he taking on so many critical issues – I think the choices he makes will determine the success of the speech and perhaps even of his presidency. So let’s go through his choices.

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MSNBC Morning Joe: Mark Penn on how Clinton years hold clues for President Obama

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On Morning Joe today, Mark Penn discussed how the Massachusetts election result is a wake up call to President Obama just as the failed midterm elections of 1994 were for President Clinton. Mark recommends that the Obama administration take a lesson from the Clinton years and begin to change direction, move to the center and to bipartisanship to keep their policies moving ahead.

Watch the video now at MSNBC

Chicago Tribune: Mark Penn on President Obama’s First Year

Obama’s first year: Mark Penn’s take
President’s slide in the polls is “cause for concern,” but not irreversible.

Mark J. Penn, who served as the chief strategist for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, has some views about where President Barack Obama stands near the end of his first year in office.

Obama’s sliding support in the polls is “a real cause for concern,” the veteran pollster says, but the president’s situation is not irreversible.

Penn is worldwide CEO of Burson-Marsteller, a public relations and public affairs firm. He ran polls for former President Bill Clinton in 1995 through 2000 and also ran weekly White House strategy meetings.

This is what Penn said in a conversation with the Washington Bureau:

Q: How serious is the overall drop off in the president’s job approval rating? Is this a bad sign for Democrats in the upcoming mid-terms? What advice would you give to the president to restore those numbers to January 2009 levels?

Penn: “The president’s numbers are a real cause for concern for himself and the party – but they certainly can be reversed at this point.

“It’s only been a year and people are uneasy but not opinion is not yet set and is quite mushy. Progress on the economy and in Afghanistan are the big things that can make a difference. I don’t think the president can do a lot right now with words – the public expects that the first year is going to be the foundation and by the second year they are looking for results. If he delivers them, these poll numbers will quickly reverse themselves.

“Working for six years with President Clinton certainly taught me the lesson that how a president can change public opinion over time as in 1995 he had about a 32 percent approval rating and almost doubled it by 1996 – president Clinton said he would focus on the economy like a laser, he did, and the public quickly recognized the progress.”

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Politico: The Strategy Corner with Mark Penn: Health care needs a clear message


Published September 1, 2009

The Obama administration’s health care reform efforts are spinning out of control, and the White House is taking on water, seeing its ratings fall and its leadership questioned. For a president whose communication skills are so justifiably well-regarded, the biggest obstacle comes as a surprise: the need for a clear and simple message of how his team’s version of health care reform will benefit ordinary Americans.

The administration must answer a series of questions before selling its plan to the public. What is the simple goal of health care reform? Control costs? Get a public option? Cover everyone? Cripple the insurance industry, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) describes as the villain of the health care system?

The Obama team must also consider what Americans really want from their health care system. From the very first sentence of the Declaration of Independence, America has been a country of no limits on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Americans want universal care as they define it — the unlimited right to have all the health care they need and access to the latest technologies to live longer and extend the lives of their loved ones. Voters are looking for health care reform that offers tangible benefits.

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