On the National Mall, barricades bar tourists from entering the Lincoln Memorial. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers sit down at a negotiating table across from chairs left empty to symbolize the no-show opposition.
With scenes of the partial government shutdown filling television news broadcasts and front pages, practitioners of political stagecraft — Republicans, Democrats and bureaucrats — are striving to frame the debate and what’s at stake in ways the public can see and feel. But while efforts to control the optics of the debate can be very effective, they’re largely reinforcing, not changing, the mindset of voters increasingly cynical about Washington, experts say.
“We’re in an age, really, of visual storytelling…and you know the story even if you don’t read all the words,” said Rita Kirk, a professor of communication at Southern Methodist University who studies political messaging.
In just the first few days of the shutdown, officials and lawmakers seized on such visuals — whether by letting the Panda Cam go black when they closed the National Zoo or jousting in front of TV cameras over the rights of Mississippi veterans to enter the shuttered World War II Memorial — either to cast government as a vital provider or an uncaring behemoth. Such efforts are perfectly timed to fit the needs of the media, who are scrambling to find visible, accessible and compelling evidence of the shutdown as tools to tell the story.
But Washington’s efforts to manage the optics of the shutdown is evident even in the absence of images — most notably in the decision by the White House to cancel President Obama’s planned trip to an Asian economic summit, avoiding coverage Republicans could construe as showing him ignoring a crisis back at home.
The shutdown touches so many people and the debate is so heated, that any opportunity to manage the optics in a way that put opponents in a negative light is too powerful a tool for political players to resist, said Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist who was a chief adviser to Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.
“Politics surrounds every aspect of this,” said Schmidt, now a vice chairman at Edelman, one of the country’s largest public relations firms. “If you look at the polling and you look at the trend on polling, it doesn’t seem that people will need much reminding to be angry.”
But the longer the shutdown stretches on, the more hard-pressed Republican leaders will be to manage the visuals of a story that already plays strongly against them, he and others said. For now, though, the shutdown and surrounding debate is spinning so fast, it offers plenty of opportunities to try to manage public perceptions.
The most widely seen example of that came this week at the perimeter of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., in what, at first glance, appeared to be a random example of the shutdown in motion. That is, until you consider the players.
For its part, the National Park Service could have merely unstaffed the memorial, following the Obama administration’s decision that national parks and monuments are not among essential government operations that must be kept open. But instead the agency decided to put up barricades, protecting the monument even as it sent a very visual message. “It’s a way to say ‘we do good work for you. Think about it!.” Kirk said.