10 Minutes With Bob Woodward

Zach Brooke
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Key Takeaways

​What? Veteran political reporter Bob Woodward says the amount of power a president holds has increased dramatically over the past several administrations.

So what? According to Woodward, the concentration of power in the executive branch has a broad impact on marketers and the business community.

Now what? Sign up for the 2017 Marketing and Public Policy Conference happening June 1-3 in Washington D.C. to hear more of Woodward's thoughts on what marketers need to know about presidential power in the age of Trump.

​May 18, 2017

Veteran investigative reporter is a featured keynote presenter at next month’s AMA conference in Washington, D.C.


The AMA’s 2017 Marketing and Public Policy Conference kicks off in Washington, D.C. next month. Among the attendees scheduled to present is two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post Associate Editor Bob Woodward.

Woodward is a legendary figure of mass media, famous for being one-half of the team that broke the story of the Watergate scandal, which culminated in the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Since then, he’s covered the administrations of the following eight heads-of-state while also writing 18 books dissecting the functions of the American presidency. Earlier this year, Woodward and colleague Carl Bernstein defended the role of the media as an authentic watchdog and important part of democracy. 

His presentation for the AMA is called, “The Age of the American Presidency: Presidential Policies and their Impact on Consumer Well Being,” and will outline how individual presidents have shaped American business, government and society over the years, as well as divulge his thoughts on the current administration.

Marketing News caught up to Woodward to ask him more about what he intends to discuss.

Q: You just spoke at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. How was it?

A: Well, that contains some of my recent thoughts, which is down the middle. In other words, this fake news thing is not true, but the media has got to get the tone and facts rights. The division. The war with the president is not a good thing for anyone.

Q: You’re a journalistic legend, to be sure. But what can marketers take away from the presentation you will be giving at AMA’s Marketing and Public Policy conference?

A: Well, the overall theme is the age of the American presidency. Presidents have more power than ever. The concentration of power is extraordinary. Presidents can start wars. [They] don’t manage the whole economy, but set the conditions in which the economy can function. I am going to go through some of the past presidents and what they’ve done—some lessons that might be learned from them, positive and negative. And then I’m going to talk about Trump because I think he’s the tall pole in the tent, to say the least.

In the marketing world, he’s going to either stabilize or improve the economy or not. Or there are going to be problems for everyone selling. Of course, in some ways, he’s the master salesman and I’ve spent time with him, and I’m going to go through that and try to address a little bit about why he won.

Q: Is the concentration of power you speak of a danger to the business world?

A: Well, it’s a reality. Article II of the Constitution says that executive power is invested in the president. One person. Not the National Security Council, not the Economic Council. The president has the ball. What I’ve done in 18 books is try to examine the process by which decisions are made. That process becomes incredibly important because its impact ripples.

There is more power now because of the communication system that he’s used very effectively with his tweets. The internet age, impatience and speed, everything is a soundbite, give me the headline—there is much less understanding of what goes on. What I’ve tried to do is dig deeper. I think the other thought is it’s a fragile time.

Q: When you look at the president’s stated agenda, you see things like health care reform, tax code overhauls and infrastructure projects. Should businesses be preparing for these changes right now, or is it better to wait until there’s a bill on his desk and we know the law is changed?

A: What you want to do is make your arguments. I think that’s a crucial part of the process. If you take Dodd-Frank [Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act], I have people who advise me on investments, and I would say a day does not pass where I don’t get some sort of boilerplate document, sometimes 30 pages, allegedly informing me. There’s no way I can read those things or understand them. In my view, Trump’s right. This has gone off the rails. You have the appearance of being informed when in fact you have less information.

I was transferring some money from one account to another and they called me from the brokerage firm and said “OK, we’re going to go on record and you have to give your name and social security number.” I thought they were going to ask for a DNA sample. They did not. But that was the only thing they didn’t ask for.

If you don’t have a relationship of trust, how are you going to function? I think a lot of this, certainly not all of it—we need regulations—but a lot of it is the illusion of being informed and being protected.

Q:  Our current president is something of a marketer himself. He’s been in business his whole life and spent a lot of time and effort building his brand. Are there any lessons on how he operates that the business community can take away?

A: I think some people would look at it and say he’s oversold and some people would look at it and say he’s been a very effective marketer. People are going to have to reach their own conclusions about the fact that are available. But I remember Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s political advisor, once said when I was interviewing him that everything depends on outcomes. I think that’s true. Next year, when the Congressional elections [take place], people are going to look around and say, “Is the economy better? Are we safer? Are we involved in wars abroad? News wars? Old wars? What’s the condition that’s been achieved? What’s the outcome or result?” That’s very important. That’s very measurable. People are going to have their judgments. The job of the press is to try and dig in and explain in a very aggressive but neutral way.

Q: One of the grand debates in our political system is business-friendly policies versus consumer-friendly policies. Are these diametrically opposed to one another or can a president embody both well?

A: Well you have to pull back and ask the question: what’s the job of the president? The job of the president, in my view, is to figure out what the next stage of good is for the majority of people in the country, develop a plan to get there strategically—not try to do it in one week or 100 days, but over a year or two—and execute it in a systematic way. Sometimes that’s going to be business-friendly, or be interpreted as that, and sometimes it’s going to be interpreted as consumer-friendly.

In many ways, they shouldn’t be contradictory. At the top has to be the citizen. It’s the best whatever next stage of good for a real majority of people in the country; not one party, not one interest group or a series of interest groups, but a majority. It’s a very fragile time because we don’t know where these policies are going. There are declarations the White House makes and people contradict that. [At] my newspaper, the fact checker, Glenn Kessler—who is very good and politically neutral— said in a piece [that was] an examination of Trump’s first 99 days that Trump had made 469 false or misleading statements, [or] 4.7 a day.

Now that’s one way of looking at it. I think a lot of people are going to look at it and say, “Are they important or” —and this is the marketing question— “is it an oversell, or is just to build momentum?” We’ll see.

Q: You’ve raised the question of fragility twice now. With our two-party system swinging back and forth on policies every four to eight years, what does that do to the standing of America?

A: Well look, things are going to change every eight years, and that’s good. That’s politics and that’s democracy. I don’t worry about that. Yes, there should be coherence in the message to countries abroad. Trump has made a lot of statements and then he’s modified them. Now he’s embracing the Chinese and now he’s embracing NATO. If you look at the first hundred days, my short answer is there is a lot of rhetoric, lots of things tried, [but] in a sense not a lot has happened. We don’t know what the clear tax policy is. He released one page on that. What is going to happen with health care? What is going to happen with relations with Russia or North Korea? Lots of questions. My understanding is there is a serious debate going on within the White House on each of these policies. So, we’ll see.

Q: It’s been said we live in a time of intense partisanship and division. There is a lot of pressure today on brands to take a side or, failing that, be apolitical. Can you relate to that as someone who must balance being objective with finding the truth?

A: Well obviously you want to state the truth. The problem, as I said in my speech the other night, quoting Ben Bradlee, is it’s hard to get the truth. Sometimes it seems to take forever. That what we should be working on. But I think we need to be, in my business, not rattled by what’s going on, but energized and working. There are people in government, in the White House, people everywhere, who will know that the press has a legitimate role. Even Trump, he criticizes the media, and he’s done more interviews in the first hundred days than any president I can recall.


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Author Bio:

Zach Brooke
Zach Brooke is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at zbrooke@ama.org or on Twitter at @Zach_Brooke.
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