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.
During the transition, he had dinner with conservative commentators at George Will's Chevy Chase home, and met with liberal pundits the next day. He spent an hour fielding questions from The Washington Post's editorial board and did a handshaking tour of the newsroom. He sat down with the likes of ABC's George Stephanopoulos, CNBC's John Harwood and Steve Kroft of "60 Minutes."
On inauguration night, Obama spoke with Robin Roberts of ABC, whose parent company had paid $2 million to televise a ball and concert. On Super Bowl Sunday, Obama talked to NBC's Matt Lauer, pretending to be hurt that Us Weekly had put Jessica Simpson on the cover instead of him.
Both sides are testing the boundaries of the relationship. Some journalists are miffed that Obama decides the day before news conferences whom he is going to call on -- the fortunate ones are notified in advance -- reducing the other reporters to the role of mere extras. Past presidents have generally worked their way around the room, starting with the wire services, networks and major newspapers.
In his first week in office Obama toured the White House pressroom, but balked when Politico's Jonathan Martin asked a question about a Pentagon nominee.
"Ah, see, I came down here to visit," the president said. "See, this is what happens. I can't end up visiting with you guys and shaking hands if I'm going to get grilled every time I come down here." Journalists are always entitled to ask questions, but the result could be fewer informal encounters with the man they cover.
The administration has started deploying other big guns. White House economics czar Larry Summers talked up the stimulus package last week in a meeting with 50 regional reporters, who jumped on the administration's release of state-by-state estimates. "Stimulus goal: 228,000 N.Y. jobs," said the Buffalo News. "R.I. could gain 13,000 jobs over two years," said the Providence Journal. "Stimulus may mean job boost for Texas," said the Dallas Morning News. Obama, meanwhile, lent his byline to a Post op-ed piece on the legislation, and took questions on Air Force One late Thursday.
In a barometer of interest in the fledgling administration, the cable news channels have carried every briefing by press secretary Robert Gibbs, who has shown an adeptness for good-natured sparring with reporters while making little news. Gibbs, not unlike his predecessors, deflects questions by saying he doesn't want to "get ahead" of his boss or "play hypothetical games" about forthcoming developments.
But he can be left flat-footed when the situation changes. On Monday, he said of the Daschle nomination: "I think the Senate will lay a serious but corrected mistake against that three-decade career in public service."
On Tuesday that was inoperative: "I think they both recognized that you can't set an example of responsibility but accept a different standard in who serves," Gibbs said of Obama and Daschle.
Bill Clinton used television as a constant tool as his White House fixated on the notion of winning each news cycle. Bush initially adopted a lower media profile, but wound up being a near-daily presence on the air, most often talking about Iraq and terrorism.
"There's too much at stake right now for Obama to moderate his presence in the public market," McKinnon says. "Saturate away, I say."
When the novelty of the first African American president wears off, the sight of Obama talking on television might have less impact if it becomes utterly routine. For now, though, the White House is cranking up the volume, staging Obama's first presidential news conference tonight -- in prime time.