By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
"Don't try a cheap stunt like that. You're better than that," Obama told him with a smile. He finally suggested that "the other side must be rattled if they're continually saying false things about us," before walking away. What creates such awkwardness are long days when reporters have only seconds to bellow a question.
When Obama decided to do a round of interviews on the next day's morning shows, not only did the campaign fail to notify the traveling correspondents the evening before, but a press aide insisted when asked about the rumor that he knew of no such plans.
Obama often goes days without taking questions from national reporters, and when he does, the sessions can be slapdash affairs. In Nevada, for instance, correspondents were reduced to shouting queries at him during a photo op in the kitchen of the Mirage Hotel. (Yesterday, perhaps in a better mood, he did chat with journalists on his plane, now that his campaign has discontinued use of a second jet to save money.)
Some reporters say Obama seems disdainful toward journalists, having submitted to precisely one off-the-record chat over beer several months ago in Iowa. To them, the absence of a senior official traveling with the press is a sign of benign neglect.
The primary reason, say those who have observed Obama most closely, is that he's never had to court the press, even in Illinois. Obama rocketed to national prominence with his 2004 Democratic convention speech, had an easy Senate election, and has gotten largely upbeat coverage from the moment he got into the presidential contest. His tactics have sometimes been criticized but not, by and large, his character.
The result: He has never had to learn press relations as a survival skill, not when he can just trot out Oprah Winfrey and ride the resulting wave.
Still, covering Obama has its compensations, largely because the man puts on a heck of a show. He draws big, noisy, mostly younger crowds that foster the impression he is leading not a campaign but a movement.
In fact, some journalists say they have to guard against getting swept away by the excitement. NBC's Lee Cowan was candid about fighting such temptations, saying on the network's Web site: "I think from the reporter's point of view, it's almost hard to remain objective, because it's infectious energy." Politico Editor in Chief John Harris said on CNN that when he was a Washington Post editor a couple of years ago, "you would send a reporter out with Obama, and it was like they needed to go through detox when they came back -- 'Oh, he's so impressive, he's so charismatic,' and we're kind of like, 'Down, boy.' "
MSNBC's Chris Matthews told Jay Leno: "If you're actually in a room with Barack Obama and you don't cry when he gives one of those speeches, you're not an American. It's unbelievable."
One media narrative that seems to be taking root is of Obama as the candidate of lofty rhetoric and Clinton as the maven of pedestrian policy talk. At a rally at Furman University here Tuesday, Obama brought the audience to several peaks, raising his voice over the applause while describing how his days as a community organizer "taught me that ordinary people can do extraordinary things" and how "the dream that so many generations fought for feels like it is slipping away."
But the address was saturated with proposals. Obama called for tax rebates; a one-time boost in Social Security checks; extending unemployment insurance; mortgage aid for those facing foreclosure; raising the minimum wage; protecting pensions; and college tuition credits. And that was before he got to his support for solar and wind power and biodiesel fuel. (There was no discussion of how he would pay for all this, other than to say his health-care plan would be partly financed by ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans.)
How, then, has Obama been saddled with an image of being long on inspiration and short on details? The answer is that journalists are not accustomed to covering a candidate who moves crowds the way Obama does, who uses speech cadences and rhythm like Martin Luther King Jr. without making his talk explicitly about race. Sen. Clinton already owned the policy-wonk slot, so by default, Obama was cast as the poetic one.
Reporters watch him at four events a day, his energy level still high, his voice still booming, leading crowds in a chant of "Fired up, ready to go," and cannot help but be impressed.
"I love you back!" he tells the boisterous crowds.
But the man who touches so many Democratic hearts feels no need, for the moment, to reach out to journalists. For those reporters who spent seemingly endless hours last week riding across the state's flat, rural landscape, their quarry out of sight except when glimpsed on a stage from afar, this was a curious disconnect indeed.Sidelined
CNN is restricting appearances by two of its high-profile commentators, James Carville and Paul Begala, until the Democratic presidential contest is resolved. Because both are personal supporters of Hillary Clinton, says CNN political director Sam Feist, they have not appeared since November, except as Clinton advocates balanced by spokesmen for one or more of her rivals. The policy, first reported by Talkingpointsmemo.com, followed complaints from Barack Obama's camp. Feist says GOP analyst Rich Galen was similarly restricted after joining Fred Thompson's campaign.
Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."