As a senior advisor to President Obama, Shailagh Murray helped spearhead his administration’s political communications strategy. She also worked as deputy chief of staff and communications director for former vice president Joe Biden. Prior to her time in the White House, Murray was a national political reporter for The Wall Street Journal and the Capitol Hill correspondent at the Washington Post. As a journalist, Murray covered three presidential elections, the Iraq War, and the expansion of the European Union, among other major political and world issues. The Gate’s Saisha Talwar sat down to talk with Murray about her insights on the role of political communications during the 2016 presidential election cycle.
The Gate: Prior to serving in the White House, you worked at the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. How did your background in journalism aid or challenge you in your political career?
Shailagh Murray: I think it was really helpful to have the perspective I had because certainly when you’re making huge decisions, you want a lot of different perspectives represented in the room. A reporter’s view of events, people, and the world generally is inherently objective. I think it helps a lot to have that person say, “I don’t think that’s the way certain people will see this,” or “I don’t think that’s the way certain people will hear it” based on your own experience talking to people directly and gauging their reactions without a point of view. That’s a long way of saying that I tried, rather than converting to an ideological perspective, to work hard to maintain my reporter’s perspective when I was in the White House, and I think that made me different and brought a new voice and point of view to the position.
Gate: Given the particularly contentious relationship between the White House and the media today, and as someone who has worked in both politics and journalism, what insights can you offer on the current situation?
Murray: What is really most alarming to me about the situation is how the polarization and the politicization of all these big issues has obscured what I think is a commonality in the way people see problems these days. This is certainly something that I have tracked over the course of my career. When I returned from living overseas in 2000 and started covering US politics and Congress, we were at the tail end of a long period of constructive collaboration, and there were a lot of obviously ideological positions and people held them to be true. It was hard to find common ground on a lot of the issues, but on the other hand, there was a sort of baseline expectation that you’re going to work through big challenges together and when you didn’t, that was seen as failure. As opposed to now, where it’s seen as an achievement to hold the line and block things from happening.
When I look at the country right now and the political environment that we’re in, in many respects, there’s great consensus between people about the problems that we face: the fact that wages are not going up quickly enough, that people in many parts of the country feel their children won’t have the same opportunities they had, that the education system is not serving them well and that they’re not preparing for the way the workplace is changing, especially as technological proficiency becomes increasingly important. The drug issues that now affect people across socioeconomic sectors, criminal justice reform, even health care—these are all issues that people on both sides of the aisle agree have to be addressed. Who would have thought that we’d be in a position where we are right now where most people agree that Obamacare was at least a good starting point and that they want the healthcare system to work better? Actually, polling has shown just in the last few days that people now are looking to government more than they used to for solutions to these problems.
How is that possible? How are all those things true and yet we live in just an incredibly polarized environment where it’s probably a statement of fact that nothing of consequence will happen this year in Washington, certainly nothing of consequence that addresses these problems. That is a question that all of us who have been involved in this system need to ask ourselves: how did this happen and how we can fix it? Because it just won’t do. It can’t hold. This country is too big and the stakes are too high to continue about our business the way we’ve done these past few years.
Gate: In considering this past presidential cycle, Donald Trump introduced a unique style of unfiltered, unmediated dialogue with the public through his Twitter presence. As someone who is an expert on political communication, do you think this method of exchange was effective? If so, why?
Murray: Putting aside all of the controversial elements of the Trump presidency, his media persona and the way he has developed it, maintained it, and built it even since he’s been in office is nothing short of amazing and impressive. He has managed to walk back huge transparency issues that you’d think people—especially reporters—would care about. For instance, disclosing the names of people who visit the White House. He managed to eradicate that a week or so ago with very little blowback. Trump is so effective at controlling the narrative of his presidency that it’s almost impossible to take your eyes off it. That creates a lot of opportunity for him to do controversial things, like deciding he’s not going to publish the visitors’ log anymore, which, by the way is one, of the baseline kind of transparency goals that people use to keep a measure of accountability over how business is conducted in the White House—by knowing who is actually there.
I think Trump has this kind of storm cloud effect that he manages to sustain at all times, which means that he’s always driving the agenda. It’s a very challenging environment for reporters and comes at a terrible time for the country, because we’re just minimizing the impact of serious conversations over issues such as Syria and heightening the attention on the kind of tactical day-to-day interactions.
The way Trump goes about this is not typically political at all. It’s much more kind of standard marketing and sales techniques. I think those are unfamiliar to a lot of people in Washington. Exaggerating to make a point is something that politicians are taught never to do, and in sales that is one of the kind of fundamentals—where you tell everyone this is the best car General Motors ever made in the interest of selling that car. There’s no fact-checking when you’re taking in that context. I think that’s the way Trump is communicating. It is obviously effective with his supporters, because they’ve stuck by him. He’s very good at what he does and seems to have made the transition, however frenetically, to the presidency without changing his brand. That’s a huge achievement, whether you like the outcome or not.
Gate: Considering the presidential election results, do you think Hillary Clinton suffered from an explicit communication flaw in her engagement with the public?
Murray: I think it’s hard to distill that down to say, “if Clinton had done this differently, the outcome would have been this.” I think in retrospect that she was not the candidate the country was hankering for. You always get stuck in politics where authenticity is all-important, and if being your authentic self doesn’t match the mood of the country or what people are in the market for, then it really doesn’t matter how authentic you are. You can tangle yourself up in that if your message isn’t resonating. It is usually not because your communication strategy is wrong. It is because people just want to hear something else. I think you could second-guess some of the decisions—it was unfortunate that [the Clinton campaign] never figured out how to dispense with that email story. Were there other ways they could have done it? I don’t know. I suppose. It felt like they could have addressed it more emphatically early on, but it’s just an impossible exercise to unpack all of those unique chains of events that led up to this election outcome.
You look back at 2008 and a completely, or relatively, unknown political phenomenon, Barack Obama, emerged. He had an outstanding visionary team of people working with him, but at the end of the day, one could argue that the reason Barack Obama became the Democratic nominee, and Hillary Clinton didn’t, is because he opposed the war and she voted for it. All the trappings of success are important, but at the end of the day, people are looking for that one thing and if you don’t have it, they can tell no matter how you try to dress it up. For whatever reason, she just never landed in that spot in the hearts of voters. If you can’t get there, you can’t. It’s hard to close the deal, especially in the environment we’re in right now where it seems like there’s a lot of emotional decision-making that went on—especially at the very end, when she happened to be the most hampered by outside events that were definitely beyond her control. Early on, could she have maybe approached things a little differently or framed her candidacy more effectively? I suppose so. At the end, though, the crescendo of all these external forces made it very tough to imagine how doing one thing differently could have radically changed the outcome.
Gate: Is there a particular US president that you think best mastered the art of political communication, both during his campaign and his presidency?
Murray: I think Ronald Reagan was awfully good at it and always knew his voice and knew who he was talking to. He knew how people heard him. I think Joe Biden was very gifted at that and could read a crowd as well as anyone I’ve ever seen. President Obama was a natural talent and at pretty much every level, especially communicating on a large scale, through speeches and big moments. He never wasted a big moment.
Also, like I said before, I think Donald Trump is very effective at what he does. It goes back to what I was saying about looking at these things objectively. People need to look at Donald Trump’s approach to communication objectively. It will make it easier to understand him, anticipate his behaviors, and create some more thoughtful, longer-term analysis. Now, there’s a lot of that out there. I don’t mean to suggest that there isn’t. But at some point, we’re going to have to stop being confused about how all this happened and start understanding what is happening, where it might be headed, and how we can take the players that we have and the government that we have and make it work more effectively. Then we can maybe steer towards having a few more constructive debates and addressing the challenges the country is unified around.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.