Obama Attempts to Manage His Media Presence

President Obama is willing to drop by the White House pressroom to say hello, but doesn't want to "get grilled" during such visits.
President Obama is willing to drop by the White House pressroom to say hello, but doesn't want to "get grilled" during such visits. (By Manuel Balce Ceneta -- Associated Press)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 9, 2009

Three days after taking office, President Obama engaged in a calculated bit of media management.

Late on that Friday afternoon, after spending the day talking up his economic stimulus package, Obama quietly signed an order allowing federal funds to be used for international groups that promote abortion. The White House wanted to discourage coverage of the divisive issue, which ran counter to the week's message of bipartisanship, so the signing was held away from reporters and cameras. It barely caused a blip.

Despite early speculation that the new administration would use newfangled technology to bypass the mainstream media, the president has been strikingly accessible, sitting for interviews or fielding reporters' questions virtually every weekday. But Obama has picked his spots, minimizing his media exposure when the hot Washington topic is one he would rather avoid.

Last Monday, Obama declined to take questions during a photo op with Vermont's governor as the controversy over Tom Daschle, his nominee for health czar, was heating up. Obama brushed off an Associated Press reporter who shouted a question on whether he still supported Daschle with one word: "Absolutely."

But even a president can be overtaken by the news cycle. In the last week of January, communications staffers suggested to chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, and then to Obama, that the president try to sell his increasingly controversial stimulus package by talking to network anchors. Wary of picking one favored network and alienating the others, the White House arranged sit-downs with NBC's Brian Williams, CBS's Katie Couric, ABC's Charlie Gibson, CNN's Anderson Cooper and Fox's Chris Wallace.

"He wants to make his case directly to the American people on the urgency of the problems we face," says White House spokesman Bill Burton. "We're exploring every way we can do it. We need to get to voters where they are."

But the strategy backfired. The interviews took place Tuesday, hours after Daschle withdrew over his belated repayment of more than $140,000 in back taxes. That debacle became the dominant story in the interviews, with the president telling one anchor after another that he had "screwed up."

Obama told his staff in advance that he wanted to use such language, and aides believe the mea culpa was a net plus, a welcome change from the usual "excuses and denials," Emanuel told the New York Times. This much is clear: By admitting what he called "self-inflicted wounds," Obama preempted days of stories about whether the administration was playing down the magnitude of the mess.

"Everyone was going to lead with Daschle and Obama was going to be in the story, so it's best served with humble pie," says Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to George W. Bush. "It's just wicked hard to tame the media beast these days. You reach out to feed it, and you get your arm gnawed off."

The new president is a "gifted communicator," McKinnon says, but "you can't ever anticipate what's going to pop into the news cycle these days. You've got to just rip and roll and hope your news cycle is scandal-free so you get your message out cleanly."

Chris Lehane, who worked in the Clinton White House, says Obama recognizes that "the old-school media is still enormously influential. He replaced an unpopular president who for the last four or five years appeared to be in a bunker and was not particularly eloquent. If Obama wasn't a politician he could be an actor, because he just pops on TV. That's a great political strength." After promising a transparent administration, Lehane says, "you cannot make yourself inaccessible on bad days."

As expected, the new administration is trying to reach its supporters directly through a new Web site and YouTube video of the president's weekly radio address. But Obama has made a point of paying his respects to the traditional media establishment.

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