March 7, 2012

What a coincidence that President Obama’s first news conference in nearly six months just happened to fall on Super Tuesday! And what a twist of fate that the president found himself addressing the United Auto Workers conference last week on the very day of the Michigan primary, where he had the chance to blast an unnamed GOP candidate for saying we should have “let Detroit go bankrupt.

Barack Obama is the new master of the “split screen.” The White House is managing the president’s schedule and activities so that major events on the GOP campaign calendar become chances to contrast the president in the news cycle with the frivolous, shrill and increasingly surreal Republican race. The targets of this campaign are the independent voters who will decide the November election.

The “split-screen” strategy is looking very effective so far.

Last week, the president’s rousing defense of his auto bailout marked the return of the “happy warrior” persona that gives political leaders their greatest appeal, and which Obama too often lacks. Before the UAW, we saw a president in full, relishing the thrust and parry, making his case with vigor, laughing at his foes as well as himself. The GOP candidates’ post-primary remarks that night looked crimped and contrived by comparison.

Then Tuesday, the contrast the White House painted could not have been more stark. Amid repeated questions about the potential nuclear showdown with Iran, Obama’s sober demeanor conveyed his tacit message: I’m a serious, responsible commander in chief — as opposed to these bozos, who are playing politics with very grave matters.

“Those folks don’t have a lot of responsibilities,” Obama said of his Republican critics on the stump. “They’re not commander in chief.” They’re just “popping off.”

Of course, Obama himself popped off plenty back when he was a presidential wannabe. Like all challengers, he was trying to get media traction and frame the debate on his terms. That’s how we ended up doubling down in Afghanistan — the “good war” Obama could support while showing critics he wasn’t “weak on defense” for opposing Iraq. (Hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of American casualties later, that judgment looks as unwise as it was effective back then, at least as a matter of political positioning.)

The split-screen strategy is just the latest reminder of how crucial a skill news manipulation is in the modern White House. The Nixon White House invented modern presidential news management — instituting practices such as the line of the day, morning conference calls among press officers across the executive branch and long-range communications planning meetings. Ronald Reagan and his impresario Michael Deaver perfected these and related techniques. As Mark Hertsgaard noted in his still-valuable 1988 book, “On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency,” the White House’s ability to set the terms of debate often results in “a distressingly narrow or otherwise distorted range of political coverage, no matter who is President.”

My favorite Hertsgaard example from that era involved education. In 1983, after polls showed 2-to-1 public disapproval of Reagan’s education cutbacks, the White House sent Reagan on the road to fix things. After 25 presidential appearances that stressed “excellence in education,” merit pay for teachers and classroom discipline, the polls flipped to 2-to-1 support for Reagan on the issue, without his policy having changed at all! Reagan complained to Deaver about having to give the same speech over and over, but Deaver knew the power of repetition, and it worked.

The power of news management — and the fight each day to shape what the media will deem the “news” to be — now lays behind most of our public life. In Abraham Lincoln’s day, the ability to craft policy with a view to how it would play in the press probably wasn’t the first quality Lincoln looked for in top aides. By 1961, when Daniel Boorstin coined the phrase “pseudo-event” to describe activities staged solely to generate publicity, such talents had become important. Today, they’re indispensable to political success — and to effective governance.

Which is why the White House has desperately needed to raise its game. The health-care debacle in 2009 and 2010 was above all a failure of communications. How else to explain that Obama could pass the Republican-inspired plan Mitt Romney enacted in Massachusetts yet be successfully (and falsely) branded a “socialist”?

Democrats better hope the White House knows the split-screen strategy amounts to easy primary-season pickings. Once the Republicans settle on a nominee — something that will, presumably, happen at some point this millennium — the terrain will change completely. Like it or not, the election will then turn as much on dueling media strategies and their impact on the attitudes of a handful of swing voters as on anything else.

Matt Miller, a co-host of public radio’s “Left, Right & Center,” writes a weekly online column for The Post. His e-mail address is mattino2@gmail.com.