Mark McKinnon’s Open Letter to David Axelrod: White House Hell

As Obama grapples with the oil spill disaster and a foreign policy quagmire just like his predecessor, Mark McKinnon offers advice on how to get his mojo back.

General David Petraeus (Drew Angerer / AP Photo)

Dear Axe,

So, finally, a good week.

General Stanley McChrystal served up a chance for your boss to improve the public’s perception of the most important presidential attribute: strong leadership.

During the 2004 elections, President George W. Bush polled significantly behind John Kerry on almost every issue important to voters. But all those issues were trumped by the voters' conclusion that Bush was the stronger and more decisive leader. The same was true in the 2000 election against Al Gore.

What a masterstroke of staging this week for Obama to walk out to the Rose Garden with General David Petraeus in tow, behind and below the president almost as if on a leash, to announce the new guy in charge of Afghanistan.

You are outdoing my former boss when it comes to frustrating the people covering you.

And how deliciously ironic that the famous counterculture Rolling Stone Magazine should be the petard upon which a military general hoisted himself. While I rarely agree with publisher Jann Wenner's politics or the agenda of the magazine, I give him credit for practicing old-school journalism. He finds brilliant, aggressive reporters, pays them well and cuts them loose.

Christopher McDougall: The Petraeus WorkoutFull Coverage: Petraeus In, McChrystal OutWhile Wenner was criticized by those inside the game for a new media strategy that allowed sites like to post Michael Hastings’ article first, that squawking misses the point. Rolling Stone assigned, underwrote and published The Story that has momentarily given the president a chance to assert his authority and regain his standing with the American public as the commander-in-chief.

Speaking of ironies, sadly, I'm experiencing deja vu watching as your guy grapples with an unpopular war and an environmental crisis. W’s Iraq and Katrina have morphed into O’s Afghanistan and Gulf oil spill.

Chicago has to be looking pretty good right now, buddy. I admire you for ignoring my advice to resist going into the White House. You are a true servant of democracy. And while I disagree with much of what your team has done, I appreciate the sacrifices you make every day giving up your normal lives, professions and time with your families in service to the country.

It's a pretty fresh hell every day, isn't it?

Global economies have become intertwined, global terrorism presents an unprecedented threat, and crises seem to be compounded by the confluence of world events, environmental fragility and nature run amok.

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And the speed of events gets grossly magnified by a media beast’s raging chorus of coverage that is a whole lot more opinion than straight news coverage.

Since you can't tame the beast, you're going around and over the beast. This creates another irony: you are outdoing my former boss when it comes to frustrating the people covering you.

You’ve limited the president’s exposure to questions in open formats. Even the Huffington Post whined back on May 14: “Will Obama Hold Another Press Conference?” Of course, he did finally on May 27— for the first time in 308 days, besting Bush's longest gap of 204 days.

You’ve built a massive message machine inside the White House spinning 24/7 and employing 69 people. More than Bill Clinton’s 47 and George W. Bush’s 52. The multi-million-dollar machine grows larger when counting other communication staff of the vice president and cabinet-level offices, support staff funded out of different accounts, and of course the perpetual campaigning arm, Organizing for America.

You’ve even limited pool photo ops. And, to add insult to injury, you’re once again using new media to bypass the old with vehicles such as the West Wing Week videocast, allowing your message to reach the public unfiltered by pundits.

All in all, a clever, well-managed message machine. It was only a matter of time before the press turned on you anyway. Appeasement and kissing the rings of the fourth estate doesn't work in the modern media age.

The good news is you will soon be back in Chicago. The bad news is you will be planning and running a re-election campaign. And it will be brutal. Running an insurgent, challenger campaign is fun. Running an incumbent re-election against a mounting misery index—not so much.

As John McCain is fond of saying, "Things are always darkest just before they go completely black." Just when you think things can't get worse in the White House, they do. On the other hand, by November, your team should be running hard on accomplishments in health care and financial reform, and perhaps at least talking about cleaning up the oil spill, not plugging it.

Carry on, regardless, Mac

(McKinnon worked with and became friends with David Axelrod in a non-partisan mayor's race in Houston in 1991. While they disagree on much politically, they remain friends.)

As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.