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June 2, 2005

Cell, Sell, Sell

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Typically, the BAG tends to looks at one picture at a time. 

However, I thought it might be interesting to consider the visual politics surrounding one issue, thinking about how the White House is used to stringing a series of strategic photo ops into a campaign. 

Obviously, in putting its visual game together, the Administration never operates in a vacuum.  The framing of events and images always involves a balancing act between the issue itself, how everyone else is spinning it, and what the best options are for exploiting, deflecting or neutralizing events as they happen.

In the past two weeks, the Administration has been on a defensive campaign to block (or at least, stall or water down) stem cell legislation.  In terms of the pictorial effort, Bush held a press conference on May 23rd with children who had been conceived from adopted frozen embryos.  That event was followed by remarks on bioethics in the White House East Room on the 24th yielding the dramatic photo of Bush holding the baby (seen above –as well as apparently everywhere else). 

Unfortunately (at least, from a liberal perspective), Bush and Rove tend to run iconographic circles around their domestic adversaries.  Considering the Administration faces overwhelming bipartisan Congressional opposition to its stem cell policy, you would never know it from the pictures.  Take the group photo of House members presenting Senators a copy of its just-approved stem cell legislation, for example (link).  Is that the big visual move — the red bow?  The imagery is laughable compared to what the Bush team will offer even on its most unimaginative day. 

What the White House might not have anticipated, however, was the visual challenge posed by the breakthrough in stem cell cloning recently announced by the South Koreans.  (Given the Administration’s dominance  — both visual and otherwise — it might not meet much PR resistance from the domestic media or the loyal opposition.  However, Bush’s activist agenda and willful adventuresomeness dictates he still has plenty of graphic blowback to deal with just from the chaos he gets himself into.)

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In contrast to the weak Congressional photos, the Korean images — which started hitting the wires on May 23rd — really pack some strength.  What provides a lot of the punch is the charismatic presence of Woo-Suk Hwang, the head of the South Korean research team.  Whether these shots manage to actually gain domestic visibility and challenge the Bush spin is debatable.  Either way, however, the Korean shots help put in perspective the extreme and contrived nature of the Administration’s stem cell sales strategy.  They also provide a sense of how the U.S. comes off on the larger playing field of world opinion.

Besides the (unusual) fact the White House is playing defense on stem cells, the other uphill challenge is that the White House PR strategy has at least two problems to deal with.  Of course, Bush has to make the moral case.  At the same time, because the moral position puts the U.S. behind in the eventual commercialization of stem cell research, the Administration also has to make (or, at least finesse) the case that the financial downside is negligible.  (Actually, the policy leads to one other requirement as well, which is to reassure that the U.S. is still committed to a high tech agenda.)

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In examining the three sets of pictures, it appears the Administration (as usual) is holding it’s own on the moral front.  On the technical/economic side, however, it seems like a different story.  (By the way, if you feel the hydrogen pic is literally too much of a cheap shot, I offer the other “economic” image I found in this same time period — of Bush at a John Deere plant witnessing a scene from the “fossil era.”)

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The Administration could probably take a loss on the stem cell vote and still end up saving face. (If Bush has one strong gift, it’s his ability to lower expectations.)  Visually though, the industrial angle couldn’t be much weaker.  While the Administration has public attention focused exclusively on the politics, the economic picture indicates America is being left in the pews.

(REVISED:  6/2//05 11:52am PST)

(image 1: AFP/Brendan Smialowski. May 20, 2004 in YahooNews.  image 2: Photo by Lee Jae-Won/Reuters.  May 30, 2005 in YahooNews. image 3: Shaun Heasley/Reuters.May 24, 2005 in YahooNews. image 4 : AP Photo/ Lee Jin-man. May 25, 2005 in YahooNews.  image 5: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters.  Taken December 11, 2003 in YahooNews.  image 6: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais. May 25, 2005 in YahooNews.)

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