Team Obama Is Courting Everybody But the Press
Monday, January 28, 2008
GREENVILLE, S.C. -- When reporters filed onto Barack Obama's press plane after his acrimonious debate with Hillary Rodham Clinton last week, one thing was noticeably missing amid the wine and snacks on the Boeing 737.
There was no high-level campaign spinner to argue that Obama had gotten the better of the exchanges or that the verbal fisticuffs were part of some precisely calculated strategy. On the press bus the next day, mid-level aides dealt with travel logistics but made no attempt to shape the coverage.
In an age of all-out political warfare, the Obama campaign is a bit of an odd duck: It is not obsessed with winning each news cycle. The Illinois senator remains a remote figure to those covering him, and his team, while competent and professional, makes only spotty attempts to drive its preferred story lines in the press.
"There is no charm offensive from the candidate toward the press corps," says Newsweek correspondent Richard Wolffe. "The contact is limited. . . . They see the national media more as a logistical problem than a channel for getting stuff out."
As Obama's blowout victory in Saturday's South Carolina primary shows, an aloof attitude toward the media may not be a liability for a candidate with his oratorical gifts. Even the pundits' attempts to minimize his win by focusing on Obama's capturing a quarter of the white vote -- no small achievement in a three-way contest -- came after a week in which journalists talked about race far more than he did. But the contrast in his press strategy is striking, not just with Clinton's campaign -- which aggressively lobbies journalists around the clock -- but also with the Bush White House and the Clinton White House before that. And that, Obama aides say, is by design.
The Clinton camp, says David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, "is hyperbolic about it. What we don't do is spend six hours a day trying to persuade you guys that red is green or up is down. . . . Their own spin was 'We are the biggest, baddest street gang on the block.'
"We can't be pacifists and cede the battlefield," Axelrod says, but "what's powering this campaign is a rejection of tactical politics."
"That's the best spin I've heard all day," replies Clinton communications chief Howard Wolfson, inviting Axelrod to "send over some leather jackets." "My sense is the Obama campaign spends eight hours a day spinning." Clinton, for her part, abandoned her inaccessible approach after losing Iowa, scheduling far more time each day for interviews and press conferences. "She felt it was the best way to talk to the American people," Wolfson says.
The no-spin zone is part of the Obama campaign's identity, with the candidate stealing a phrase from John McCain in telling crowds he wants "a politics that's not based on PR and spin but is based on straight talk."
To be sure, the Obama camp stepped up efforts last week to challenge what it calls distortions of his record by Bill Clinton, perhaps the biggest media magnet ever to assume the role of presidential campaign surrogate. And some Obama strategists have been known to complain loudly when they think a story is unfair. But ever since Obama was embarrassed by a staff memo that assailed Hillary Clinton as the senator from "Punjab" (over her contributions from Indian Americans), he has ordered his team to steer clear of pejorative attacks not based on public actions.
All traveling campaigns have a bubble-like quality, but Obama seems unusually insulated. One moment of absurdity came Tuesday, when reporters on the press bus were asked to dial into a conference call in which Obama announced a congressman's endorsement -- even though the candidate was nearby and just as easily could have delivered the news in person to the bus captives. Obama answered a few questions, but reporters are generally placed on mute after they speak so there can be no follow-up. (Clinton held a news conference the same morning.)
That afternoon, as the candidate was working his way through a raucous crowd at Linder University in Greenwood, New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny shouted a question about whether Obama was allowing Bill Clinton to get inside his head.