The perils of presidential sound-bites
By Peter Feaver I have not done the systematic analysis (though I am sure some professor has done it somewhere), but my hunch is that most critics (and perhaps most Americans) conjure up some of the following sound-bites when asked for a bumper-sticker quotation on "Bush foreign policy" (in parentheses are the number of Google ...
By Peter Feaver
By Peter Feaver
I have not done the systematic analysis (though I am sure some professor has done it somewhere), but my hunch is that most critics (and perhaps most Americans) conjure up some of the following sound-bites when asked for a bumper-sticker quotation on "Bush foreign policy" (in parentheses are the number of Google hits you get if you search for this phrase and "Bush"):
"Bring it on" (548,000)
"Mission accomplished" (964,000)
"Old Europe" (743,000)
"Axis of evil" (1,050,000)
"looking into Putin’s soul" (1,090,000, if you Google "Bush" "soul" and
I haven’t checked every listing, but my bet would be that almost all of the references to those sound-bites are negative — that is, the sound-bite is invoked to criticize Bush foreign policy, not to defend or explain it. I would venture still one more bet: many of those references would describe the sound-bite as a habitual phrasing, as if it were an emblematic and symptomatic theme of Presidential messaging.
Here is the thing. So far as I can tell (and I am sure someone from the nutroots will do the research to disprove me), President Bush said "bring it on" and "looked into his soul" each once, in separate off-the-cuff remarks in response to a question. President Bush never said "mission accomplished" in the "Mission Accomplished" speech, although it was on one of the backdrops. Once. I don’t think Bush ever said "Old Europe," though Rumsfeld did, I think once but maybe a few times. Bush did say "axis of evil" once in a formal presidential speech, but if it ever was a staple of presidential rhetoric it was long gone by the second term.
Even if a dogged Googler can find one or two other instances where Bush or a senior presidential spokesperson uttered those words, I stand by my central point: these sound-bites came to define Bush foreign policy not through their repeated use by Bush people, but rather by their repeated use by anti-Bush people. And those sound-bites were highly corrosive of public understanding and support for Bush foreign policy. They allowed critics to substitute a caricature for the real policy, with predictable results.
Which brings me to the Obama Administration. It is early days yet, of course, and so I do not expect we have yet heard the sound-bite caricatures that could one day come to "define" Obama foreign policy. The late-night comics who are the brand entrepreneurs in this business are still treating the Obama administration with kid gloves. The closest that we have heard is Vice President Biden’s "international crisis test," (87,000 google hits for "Biden" and "international crisis" and "Obama") which I guesstimate is invoked by Obama critics more than Obama defenders at a rough ratio of 8:1.
Perhaps Obama will be so careful as to never utter anything lampoonable, but given his high exposure it is likely there will be untoward off-the-cuff remarks (for instance, check out his humorous jab at Jessica Simpson at the end of this Lauer interview — a harmless nudge that doubtless made his press handlers cringe).
There is probably a higher likelihood that the media environment will always be so skewed in his favor that he will never run afoul of this sort of problem as Bush did. But if he ever does fall behind his critics in the sound-bite arms race, he may find that it is a very hard to make up ground. Even if you, as president, never say it again, if your critics are repeating it endlessly, you can’t shake the association.
Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.
More from Foreign Policy
Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?
The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically.
Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World
It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.
It’s a New Great Game. Again.
Across Central Asia, Russia’s brand is tainted by Ukraine, China’s got challenges, and Washington senses another opening.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing
The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.