How To Brand A Government Initiative President Obama's speech Wednesday is as much about how he's governing as how is he branding his message. David Gergen, professor of public service at Harvard's Kennedy School and director of its Center for Public Leadership, says branding a government initiative is sometimes accidental and sometimes intentional.

How To Brand A Government Initiative

How To Brand A Government Initiative

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President Obama's speech Wednesday is as much about how he's governing as how is he branding his message. David Gergen, professor of public service at Harvard's Kennedy School and director of its Center for Public Leadership, says branding a government initiative is sometimes accidental and sometimes intentional.


Tonight's speech by President Obama is an exercise in both the substance and style of governing. What's the program that he's advancing and how is he packaging it, branding it, impressing its virtues on people and belittling its drawbacks? Some textbook examples of presidential branding.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people.

President LYNDON JOHNSON: We have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Our schools will flourish when citizens join in the noble cause of making sure no child is left behind.

SIEGEL: Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and a recent example from President George W. Bush who successfully marketed a standards-based education reform that is now a lightning rod for protest and ridicule. But when he called it No Child Left Behind, think of what he got. He got the welfare of our kids in the name. Leave No Child Behind is actually the registered trademark mission statement of the Children's Defense Fund. The phrase also echoes the military credo, No Man Left Behind.

And if that weren't enough, the idea of being left behind has been popularized in a series of Christian novels as the condition of those passed over by God in The Rapture. A phrase resident of saving unlucky children abandoned on the battlefield of good and evil could evidently sell even a barrage of standardized tests as the most humane school reform of our time.

David Gergen served as a White House advisor to Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. He's now a professor of public service at Harvard's Kennedy School and director of its Center for Public Leadership. And he joins us from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Welcome, once again, to the program.

Professor DAVID GERGEN (Public Service, Harvard Kennedy School; Director, Center for Public Leadership): It's good to be here again.

SIEGEL: Tell me, how do you brand a government initiative? How do you give it…

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: …give it style and legs?

Prof. GERGEN: Well, sometimes, it happens by accident and sometimes, intentionally. When Franklin Roosevelt called for the New Deal, they hadn't quite appreciated that that would be picked up. But a cartoonist for a Midwestern paper showed a picture of an airplane with a banner on it - the New Deal - and suddenly, Roosevelt realized this was catching on and he used it a lot.

Lyndon Johnson, for the Great Society, I think there's a wonderful story told by Dick Goodwin, Doris Kearns Goodwin's husband, when he worked for Lyndon Johnson. Johnson called him to the swimming pool and instructing him to take his clothes off and get in the pool with Johnson. And Johnson came over him like a great whale and looked at him and said, I need a slogan.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. GERGEN: And, you know, branding - and that's how they came up with the Great Society. So it can be intentional. And I think George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind was, you know, worked extraordinarily well.

Occasionally, of course, you get branded with something you didn't actually say. That happened to Jimmy Carter back in 1979 when he gave a speech to the country after bewailing the low morale of the country. And it wound up being called the Malaise Speech. He never used the word malaise, but that was the brand, and he had to live with it. And it caused him terribly in politics.

SIEGEL: Okay, we're now on the eve of a, perhaps the most important address that President Obama has made so far, his biggest domestic policy initiative and it's a very complex set of issues, even. Does he have to give it some kind of accessible handle; some clear simple statement of what it's all about so that people can appreciate what he's doing?

Prof. GERGEN: It would certainly help him if he had some sort of nickname, or a title, or a brand that came out of this speech. I wouldn't pin a lot of time on the White House trying to get there, but it would be very helpful if there were a phrase that people could relate to. In the campaign, Barack Obama was enormously helped by Yes, We Can. It became a chant, as you recall. Even he wasn't sure he really liked it, but then it worked so well that he grabbed it. But there's been nothing similar to that on health care.

SIEGEL: In his speech tonight, is President Obama ultimately obliged to say things that your colleagues at the Kennedy School will mull over and find serious under thoughtful analysis of the health care system? Or is he obliged to be much more populist in the way he's presenting this problem?

Prof. GERGEN: I think in this occasion, he needs to talk to the general public. It would be, of course, wonderful if everybody here could chew over things. But I think he needs to take this into Main Street America and to help people understand what he's trying to do and to rally to them, to inspire them to follow him.

SIEGEL: We did hear from Paul Begala, by the way, that when you were advising the Clinton White House - the issue of the pen; whether to wave the pen or not and say, I'll veto this bill, arose. And you said don't do it.

Prof. GERGEN: It was clear when President Clinton gave his State of the Union on health care that the only way we were going to get a bill was through a negotiation. And there were some very, you know, hard-lined folks there who didn't want a compromise of any sort. It was, you know, oh, you get it all or get nothing. Incrementalism was a dirty word at that point. And the idea was proposed by some of the hardliners. You know, we must wave the veto pen and said, if you send me a bill that is anything less than full national health insurance for every American, I will veto it. And I just felt that's like waving a flag in front of a bull. It's going to leave the people that want to negotiate the charge and we're not going to get a bill. So I argued. I was voted down soundly, I might add.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. GERGEN: Wound up, you know, with nothing out of that whole thing. It was a fiasco. And it's, of course, was persuading President Obama and Rahm Emanuel and others in the White House that they have to get a bill of some sort this year. And the prospects still are that they will get a bill. The question is whether it will be a serious reform or will it be health care - health reform light. And frankly, there's a danger the whole thing could collapse.

SIEGEL: Well, David Gergen, thank you so much for talking with us about this.

Prof. GERGEN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: David Gergen, who served as advisor to four presidents, spoke with us from the Kennedy School at Harvard.

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