You know you're in trouble when you see headlines like this one from Knight-Ridder, Friday, May 19, 2006 - Americans don't like President Bush personally much anymore, either. Ouch.
This was the "get out of jail free" card, so to speak, or maybe speaking quite literally. Some days earlier, the president's key advisor and some say political genius, Karl Rove, relieved of his duties as policy advisor and now solely dedicated to political strategy, had famously said of the president's low approval ratings - "People like him. They respect him. He's somebody they feel a connection with. But they're just sour right now on the war. And that's the way it's going to be. And we will fight our way through."
Many looked at the poll numbers and didn't exactly see what "Bush's Brain" saw. And that's what this Knight-Ridden item is about. You look at the poll numbers and, to change the metaphor from Monopoly to poker, this "ace in the hole," his basic likeability that will bring people around, looks more like a three of clubs. Rove, to be clear, said he was using data from private internal Republican polling, and all the other polls didn't matter. He had the real facts (think of the WMD argument here of course). The Republican National Committee wouldn't release a copy of the poll in question (the UN inspectors finding nothing were wrong too, as we had better intelligence - the real facts we couldn't share with anyone). The spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee says it's all in how you ask the questions. Amusing.
Knight-Ridder opens with this -
And the quotes from political scientists are there, like this one - "When he loses likeability, the president loses the benefit of the doubt. That makes it much harder for him to steer." And they review data from six major polls. The consensus - "The president's public perception problem is not only about his dismal job performance, but also his striking lack of personal favorability," as one expert puts it.
It's not just the way he's doing his job. Americans apparently don't like President Bush personally much anymore, either.
A drop in his personal popularity, as measured by several public polls, has shadowed the decline in Bush's job-approval ratings and weakened his political armor when he and his party need it most.
Losing that political protection - dubbed "Teflon" when Ronald Reagan had it - is costing Bush what the late political scientist Richard Neustadt called the "leeway" to survive hard times and maintain his grip on the nation's agenda. Without it, Bush is a more tempting target for political enemies. And members of his party in Congress are less inclined to stand with him.
And about that -
Does it matter? The idea is, of course, the "personal popularity can swing elections and affect governing." Al Gore was seen as wooden. He lost. And yes, former California Governor Gray Davis was cool and standoffish politician, and was "recalled" as Arnold Schwarzenegger was white hot (in many senses). Reagan survived the Iran-Contra mess with his bumbling doofus who means well routine - he just didn't seem the kind of guy that did bad things, at least on purpose. Or the Alzheimer's was starting to kick in, so you just couldn't be mad at him.
Personal favorability can encompass many things in the minds of voters: character, respect, warmth, kinship, even whether a voter would want to have a beer with a politician. Or in the case of the teetotaling Bush, a soda.
Bush has lost ground on most of those measures.
Gallup, for example, found drops in the number of people who think that Bush is honest and trustworthy, that he shares their values and that he cares about people like them.
Bush doesn't have the Teflon that Ronald Reagan had. The persona presented in this case - the happy-go-lucky frat boy who laughs at people with degrees and ideas, who don't like to think or those who do, and who just trusts his instincts - isn't providing the same sort of protection when things go bad, or you and your folks screw up. Reagan's gentle fool bit works better than the scornful frat-boy thing.
What to do? This calls for a consultant!
But who would that be? It could be the chairman of Archetype Discoveries Worldwide.
To explain, this consultant, as noted in April 2004 in these pages here, was helping John Kerry is his attempt to dodge the jibes of Rush Limbaugh and the rest in his presidential run. Pretend you don't speak French and stop seeming intelligent and worldly.
The details were explained by Joshua Kurlantzick in the New Yorker in this -
So the worldliness and language skills just disappeared.
A couple of weeks ago, the Washington Post reported that G. Clotaire Rapaille, a French anthropologist known for identifying the subconscious associations that people from various cultures make in the "reptilian" part of their brains, had offered to become the Senator's Gallic Naomi Wolf, devising ways for him to rid his speaking style of French influences.
Suddenly, Kerry appeared to develop linguistic amnesia. "During a press conference, I asked Kerry a question, on Iraq," de Chalvron recalled. "He didn't answer. In front of the American journalists, he didn't want to take a question that was not in English." Loïck Berrou, the United States bureau chief for de Chalvron's competitor, TF1, has been having similar problems. Berrou chatted in French with Kerry on a commercial flight last year; the Senator reminisced about his family's country house in Saint-Briac-sur-Mer, a village in Brittany, where Kerry's cousin is the mayor. "We've pushed hard to get an interview with him, and no answer," Berrou says.
Family members have apparently been put on a leash as well. Kerry's wife, Berrou says, "speaks with us in French with no problem, and her press attaché has to pull her by the shirt to get her away from us."
Could G. Clotaire Rapaille help George Bush?
Of course the president, in this case, is already quite good at playing dumb, and more than clumsy with the one language he happens to know (except for a smattering of slang Tex-Mex Spanish words and phrases). The problem is almost the reverse of Kerry's.
For a review of the way Rapaille might approach this Bush problem, see this from October 2004, a discussion of how we are seen by the French, and how we hate them truly. Rapaille comes up there, in this from Elisabeth Eaves in SLATE.COM -
Eaves cites Clotaire Rapaille, this French-born marketing consultant based here in the States who specializes in selling across cultures, the one who advised the Danish Lego people that Americans do not read instructions and told French cheese-makers that Americans prefer their cheese "scientifically dead." Back then, Our Man in Paris, Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, had a great deal to say about all this, as did the marketing professor at the famous business school in upstate New York who often adds comments (he knew and had worked with Rapaille and thought Rapaille was almost always spot-on).
America is a shark. Full of religious zealots. Who are deeply divided against themselves.
These are just a few descriptions of the United States gleaned from just-released French books devoted to deciphering and explaining the other red, white, and blue. Parisian editors are dining out on a new subgenre that includes tirades, serious academic tomes, election-timed quickies by celebrity journalists, and even a novel, Frenchy, about a Parisian living in Texas when the United States invaded Iraq.
Could Rapaille solve this "missing Teflon" problem and make Bush "likeable" now? It's an interesting question. "Selling across cultures" may actually be the real challenge. Can one devise a way to make the squinting and stubborn and not at all curious George likeable again, in the context of the issues at hand these days?
That would be cool, if you could pull it off. You just need the codes that unlock the NASCAR fan in every Boston liberal, and unlock the openness and generosity of spirit in the Minutemen loading their rifles and heading for the border to knock off a few Mexicans sneaking in.
And wouldn't you know, G. Clotaire Rapaille has a new book to be released in June, conveniently titled The Culture Code - "In The Culture Code, internationally revered cultural anthropologist and marketing expert Clotaire Rapaille reveals for the first time the techniques he has used to improve profitability and practices for dozens of Fortune 100 companies. His groundbreaking revelations shed light not just on business but on the way every human being acts and lives around the world."
The site, from Random House Broadway Books, had all the details, a few excerpts, and links to all the press and media on this fellow.
But is he the man for the job?
Laura Miller in the May 20 issue of SALON.COM interviews him here - "In America, seduction is dishonest" - and the opening indicated this guy is not the sort of guy Bush would like -
This is no Karl Rove, who may himself have a lizard brain, but doesn't do focus groups. Rove plans attacks.
Clotaire Rapaille is a controversial, often outrageous figure, an anthropologist turned marketing guru and Frenchman turned American. From his flamboyant appearance (he swans around in a cravat and black velvet frock coat, drives a Rolls-Royce, plays polo and lives in a restored industrialist's mansion in Tuxedo Park, N.Y.) to his sweeping pronouncements on the "archetypes" underlying various national cultures, he tends to elicit either rapt attention or dismissive scorn. Academics write him off as both irrational and behind the times, rival market researchers accuse him of being simplistic and a shameless self-promoter - but an impressive roster of Fortune 100 companies have engaged his services and come back for more again and again.
Rapaille's method involves a three-stage focus group process, one that starts with the rational aspect of the participant's experience - the "cortex" as Rapaille calls it - then moves on to a more creative, storytelling portion targeted at the "limbic brain." The final stage, during which the participants are encouraged to lie on comfy cushions and dig down to their earliest memories of "cars" or "coffee" or even "seduction," is the only one that really counts for Rapaille. These sessions allow him to tap into what he calls the "lizard brain," a center of primal impulses, needs and memories that he calls "imprints." When it comes to decision-making, we may offer excuses from the cortex ("I want a car with great safety features"), but what really motivates us are the primitive emotions of the lizard brain ("I want a car that makes me feel free and strong").
But then, they guy may have some good idea, beyond anything Rove imagines -
The choices are death or perpetual and pointless adolescence? That can't be so.
Q: You describe America as an adolescent culture, and that idea is not unfamiliar to many of us. What does it mean to you?
A: You have a series of elements and when you look at them all together, they tell you the same thing. For example, we never look at instructions. We never plan. The Iraq war is an example of that. We always want the short-term, quick fix. This is a stereotype, of course, but it's really true in the sense that we have the repetition of this pattern again and again. We are very uncomfortable with sex and have no sex education with our children, just some anatomical education. We have a hard time with our children because how can adolescents raise adolescents? I don't want to know what I'm going to do when I grow up even if I'm 75 because I don't want to grow up. I want to have fun, to be rich and famous now, to play. Now, I choose to be American because I'd rather be part of an adolescent culture than a senile culture.
Q: You feel that France is a senile culture?
A: Oh yes, they're almost committing suicide right now. They're destroying themselves.
And note this on doing things right -
Of course that's all rather general, but it does get more politically specific -
Q: You say that a Frenchman says, "I think," while an American says, "I do." How do you reconcile this immediate gratification impulsiveness with the famous American industriousness?
A: For an American, if you think too much something is wrong with you. Yet there is this ability to do things, and that's because we learn by making mistakes. I did a lot of research about quality, comparing Americans with the Japanese. Americans don't want to do it right the first time the way the Japanese do. I don't mean consciously, but if I do it right the first time, then what do I do next? What do I learn? In this attitude, there is a lot of wisdom.
And on it goes, with the idea of a can-do spirit as part of the American code, but then you have to go on and actually get things done. Talk is cheap.
Q: What about partisan politics in America? It seems particularly bitter at the moment.
A: Politics in America has a different code than in Germany, England or France. The Democrats and the Republicans say the same thing. After a while, they just say, for example, "We have to protect the border or deal with immigration and we just have different ideas about how to do that." The main goal is the same. In other parts of the world, you have different parties with completely different goals.
Q: So what do you think the divide in America is about? Because people feel it very strongly.
A: I think we have two parts of the brain fighting it out. The blue people are supposed to be thinkers. But the majority of America, the people who drive a pickup truck with a six-pack in the back and a gun, they see themselves as the ones who are doing and making this country, not just sitting there thinking. They shoot first and ask questions later. The key notion for me is that the blue people think too much, and because they think too much they can't agree on anything.
Q: President Bush seems to be working that kind of shoot-first, no-nonsense code, but the failure of his policies has made him very unpopular all the same. It seems like the ideal opportunity for the Democrats to step in and regain some ground, but hardly anyone seems to have much faith that they can pull it off. What do you think of their chances?
A: Here's one issue: Don't tell people, "Drive a smaller car." That goes against American culture. Say, "I'm going to do everything to make us energy independent." Independence is so American. We don't want to be dependent on all these crazy guys in the outside world. We want to be independent. And then we have to do whatever we have to do to become independent. A theme like that is very powerful, and Thomas Friedman wrote several articles about it but nobody is really listening to him.
We need a cultural leader, not just someone who says I can push a button and send atomic bombs to you. Someone who is proud to be an American and can present an image of America to the world. Not to impose our culture to the world, but we want you to understand it and we want to understand yours and respect each other. George W. Bush has not done that.
Q: But doesn't he embody a lot of codes of American culture?
A: In some ways, yes, he is the cowboy and so on. But my position is that Bush never won an election. I'm not going into the controversy - it's that the other guys lost. Kerry lost, Bush didn't win. Kerry should have won, that was so clear to me, but he did everything wrong. He didn't represent all the American culture and so we are left with President Bush.
And there's this on the rise of Christian fundamentalism -
That's about it - Pat Robertson as giggling adolescent, high on the God idea, while everyone else grew up. Right. It's an interesting observation, but what do you do with it? The man fits in with the culture - he's rich and famous. And he tells the White House what's acceptable to his crowd of similar kids.
Religion in America is Disney World. We're not really serious about it the way the Muslims are. We just want some rituals, we have so many different brands of religion. We like the stories about it and talking about what they say and don't say. It's little stories for children. When in Kansas they try to stop the teaching of evolution, it's like at Disney World. If you are in the Mickey Mouse costume, the rule is that you never take off your mask. You're not supposed to show in public that there is a real guy under the mask. That's religion in America; let the people keep their illusions. Don't show the reality.
Now, because we are adolescent, we like to take things to extremes: extreme sports, extreme everything. Moderation is boring - eating in moderation? No way. So we apply that to religion, too, religious extremism.
So what do you do if Karl Rove is indicted and the White House calls you in as consultant when Rove has to leave? Bush has the "if you think too much something is wrong with you" thing down cold. And telling Bush to curb the impulse to impose our culture to the world and tell everyone we want them to understand our culture and want to understand and respect theirs? Yes, Bush has not done that. And he won't - his whole foreign policy, developed in the late eighties by the neoconservatives with their Project for a New American Century, in firmly in place. There's nothing else, and he can't throw everyone out. As for being inspiring, switching from "be very afraid and be very angry" to "let's work with everyone and get some things done to make things better" is an impossible transition. The president is notorious stubborn, and the raw material for the new approach may just not be there.
It doesn't matter. They won't be hiring this French-born wild man. Things are set for the next nine hundred ninety days, with or without Karl Rove.
Go read the rest of the interview. The stuff on sex and drinking and love is cool.
For example, this is good -
And this -
I always say if you want to understand a culture, look at what the people do at 5 o'clock. In England, they drink some kind of hot water with an herb in it: tea time. In Spain, they kill a bull. The Americans have the happy hour, they get drunk. The French have cinq a sept, a very special thing, it's sexual. Men and women, who are married but not to each other, after work they go to a hotel and have sex. It's seen as experiencing pleasure with somebody else. For the French, life is about the refinement of pleasure. I'm not saying it's right or wrong, but the cultures do provide very different reference systems.
You don't want this guy anywhere NEAR the White House.
American women are uncomfortable with being too sexy. You have to be sexy, but not too sexy. It is very, very difficult. I joke that if I come back one day as a woman, I don't want to be an American woman. It's too difficult.
In America, seduction is dishonest. In America, we say, "What you see is what you get," whereas in French culture it doesn't matter what you have, it's what you do with it.
... Beauty is an art. Red is red and blue is blue. It is not the color of the paint that makes the painting. Americans think a woman should be what she is and not have any intentions behind that. In French culture, the only thing that is sexy is the intentions.