Obama Makes a Point of Speaking of the People, to the People

By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 14, 2008

In the 26 years since the weekly radio address became a modern White House staple, presidents have often treated the speech to the nation as a task to be endured rather than an opportunity.

Not so with President-elect Barack Obama, who has been using his four minutes of weekend airtime not only to speak directly to the American people, but also to create news.

Yesterday, Obama used the address to announce Shaun Donovan, New York City's housing commissioner, as his nominee to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Obama has previously outlined a series of specific proposals aimed at reversing the nation's economic torpor, and he sketched out a plan to save or create 2.5 million jobs over the next two years.

Dan Pfeiffer, the incoming White House deputy communications director, said Obama will continue to use the addresses "to make significant news."

That contrasts sharply with President Bush, who presented little policy or political perspective in his radio addresses.

Bush's topic yesterday was the fight against illegal drugs; other recent subjects have included Thanksgiving and the transition process. Even when Bush dedicated six straight radio addresses to the economy -- from mid-September to late October -- the tone was more review than preview.

The incoming president's approach to the address also differs in how content is presented, by marrying the 100-year-old technology of radio to 21st-century tools: The speech is still beamed out to radio stations nationwide on Saturday mornings, but now it is also recorded for digital video and audio downloads from YouTube, iTunes and the like, so people can access it whenever and wherever they want.

"One of the fundamental precepts of our campaign was to use the new technology to reinvigorate our democracy. That's a commitment we will bring to this administration," senior Obama adviser David Axelrod said.

That strategy speaks to a broader revolution of how Obama will communicate with the American public, said Doug Sosnik, who was a senior aide in the Clinton White House.

"Once a decade or two, a president comes in and redefines how the White House communicates," Sosnik said. He noted that President Ronald Reagan, who introduced the weekly radio address in 1982, also perfected the political power of television broadcasts. That built on the concepts first grasped by John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s, while President Bill Clinton took it a step further by focusing on cable and satellite television.

"The mainframe for this White House will be the Internet, not TV," Sosnik added. "They will cater to TV. And it will be integrated into the overall digital strategy. But it's not going to be the end-all."

In its availability and its immediacy, online video offers a powerful newsmaking tool for the president-elect, Pfeiffer said. It is also easy to produce: A videographer can record Obama delivering the address in his transition office in fewer than 15 minutes.

"Turning the weekly radio address from audio to video and making it on-demand has turned the radio address from a blip on the radar to something that can be a major newsmaking event any Saturday we choose," Pfeiffer added.

The roots of this digital communication strategy can be found in Obama's campaign for his party's nomination for president. Faced with the prospect of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's financial juggernaut during the Democratic primaries, Obama and his team made a series of early investments in building a direct-to-voter contact operation that relied heavily on the use of Web video. That helped to reaffirm the idea that each and every supporter had a hand in any successes the campaign enjoyed, and to forge a firsthand connection.

Obama announced his intent to seek the presidency via Web video, and throughout the primaries and general-election campaign, he used the medium to sidestep mainstream media and to speak directly with voters. Campaign manager David Plouffe became something of a cult hero to Democrats around the country, thanks to a series of purposely rudimentary video messages shot in his office and sent to supporters.

And some Obama videos have become YouTube phenomena: His speech on the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. and race in America has been viewed more than 5.5 million times, while his victory speech in Grant Park on Nov. 4 is nearing 4 million views.

"Through their new-age communications brilliance and their resultant electronic fundraising, they have changed politics forever," said Fred Davis, a Republican media consultant and the lead ad man for Republican Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign. "They have given the Democrats a major advantage in presidential politics long into the future."

Making the success of that communication strategy work equally well from the Oval Office is the task of the coming weeks and months. Obama's decision to use the weekly address as a platform from which to make news represents the leading edge of that effort.

Now, instead of asking backers to register friends to vote, Obama will aim to use technological advances to build grass-roots support for policy initiatives, according to Joe Trippi, who managed former Vermont governor Howard Dean's 2004 Democratic presidential bid.

"Obama will be more directly connected to millions of Americans than any president who has come before him, and he will be able to communicate directly to people using the social networking and Web-based tools such as YouTube that his campaign mastered," Trippi said. "Obama's could become the most powerful presidency that we have ever seen."

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