Obama Works the Press

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 9, 2009 9:13 AM

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 for the use of a car and driver. 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 a near-daily presence on the air through endless speeches 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 may 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.

In other news . . .

Think liberals are disappointed in Obama? Maureen Dowd: "Barack Obama could not locate the bully pulpit and ended up being bullied."

Frank Rich: "The new president who vowed to change Washington's culture will have to fight much harder to keep from being co-opted by it instead." (He also whacks the WP editorial page for saying Daschle could soldier on.)

The Senate may have barely managed to cut a stimulus deal, but is there a growing media verdict that Obama botched his first couple of weeks? Former Clintonite Bruce Reed doesn't think so:

"Obama showed he can take a punch, and learn a lesson. Most Americans root for their president to succeed, and that's especially true for Obama . . .

"Obama handled the first bad news of his presidency with class and candor. He took responsibility, took his lumps, and took the lesson to heart. 'I screwed up,' he told NBC. 'The responsibility era is not never making mistakes. It's owning up to them and trying to make sure you never repeat them.'

"People expect their leaders to make mistakes, but they're surprised and delighted whenever leaders own up to them. In 1993, Janet Reno became an overnight sensation for taking responsibility for authorizing the FBI's botched raid at Waco. In 2005, by contrast, Michael Brown became a national punch line when Bush praised him for FEMA's disastrous response to Katrina."

But this Charles Krauthammer column argues that the media put the president on an impossibly high pedestal:

"The Age of Obama begins with perhaps the greatest frenzy of old-politics influence peddling ever seen in Washington . . .

"After Obama's miraculous 2008 presidential campaign, it was clear that at some point the magical mystery tour would have to end. The nation would rub its eyes and begin to emerge from its reverie. The hallucinatory Obama would give way to the mere mortal. The great ethical transformations promised would be seen as a fairy tale that all presidents tell -- and that this president told better than anyone.

"I thought the awakening would take six months. It took two and a half weeks."

Rich Lowry doesn't like the president reminding the Repubs who carried the election--without mounting a better argument:

"Barack Obama, a reputed master of the persuasive art, has settled on his central argument for the stimulus bill: I won. That Obama is reduced to this crude appeal is a symptom of the intellectual collapse of the case for his stimulus bill, a congressional spendfest untethered from its stated goal of providing a rapid 'jolt' to the economy.

"As far as political arguments go, 'I won' has its power--provided it's made on behalf of an agenda ratified by the American electorate. But Obama didn't campaign on a sprawling, nearly $1 trillion new spending plan. If he had pledged in October to double federal domestic discretionary spending in a matter of weeks--including increasing the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts by a third, spending hundreds of millions more on federal buildings and throwing tens of billions on every traditional liberal priority from job training to Pell Grants--he'd have been hard-pressed to win at all . . .

"When Barack Obama ran last year, he didn't say he'd engage in faith-based economic policy on a grand scale. He didn't say he'd toss aside the normal processes of governing. He didn't say he'd quickly act to add waste to the federal budget. And he didn't say he'd try to brush away criticism with the mere assertion of his victory."

In fairness, the economy is in far worse shape now than it was even in October.

How should embattled presidential nominees withdraw? Quickly and quietly, says the New Republic's Jason Zengerle, deconstructing the case of Tom Daschle:

"He actually didn't do that bad a job managing the withdrawal of his nomination for secretary of health and human services--at least in terms of its impact on him. But he did a lousy job of mitigating its affect on Obama. Although The New York Times had come out against Daschle's nomination, there didn't appear to be any groundswell of opposition to it on the Hill--where he's still well-liked from his days in the Senate--nor among liberal activists, who seemed willing to hold their noses about Daschle's post-Senate buck-raking if it meant they'd have a better chance of getting universal health care.

"That's why his decision to withdraw surprised so many people--and provoked such an outpouring of sympathy and support. I'm sure Daschle was looking forward to being HHS secretary, but it couldn't have been a bad consolation prize to have everyone from Andrea Mitchell to Ted Kennedy to Obama himself line up this week to sing his praises as a selfless public servant. By getting out before things got ugly, Daschle managed to emerge with his reputation still intact.

"Obama's reputation, however, certainly suffered. After declaring that he 'absolutely' supported Daschle just 24 hours before he withdrew, the president wound up with egg on his face."

HuffPost blows the lid off Jacketgate:

"One day after President Bush's former Chief of Staff Andrew Card blasted President Obama for breaking the Bush dress code, which reportedly required that a jacket be worn by anyone entering the Oval Office, we've unearthed a photo of, well, a jacketless President Bush in the Oval Office."

The stimulus debate rages on, both on the politics and the economics. Paul Krugman tackles both:

"A not-so-funny thing happened on the way to economic recovery. Over the last two weeks, what should have been a deadly serious debate about how to save an economy in desperate straits turned, instead, into hackneyed political theater, with Republicans spouting all the old clich├ęs about wasteful government spending and the wonders of tax cuts.

"It's as if the dismal economic failure of the last eight years never happened -- yet Democrats have, incredibly, been on the defensive . . .

"Somehow, Washington has lost any sense of what's at stake -- of the reality that we may well be falling into an economic abyss, and that if we do, it will be very hard to get out again."

Peggy Noonan has a markedly different view of "President Obama's great stimulus mistake":

"His serious and consequential policy mistake is that he put his prestige behind not a new way of breaking through but an old way of staying put. This marked a dreadful misreading of the moment. And now he's digging in. His political mistake, which in retrospect we will see as huge, is that he remoralized the Republicans. He let them back in the game.

"Mr. Obama has a talent for reviving his enemies. He did it with Hillary Clinton, who almost beat him after his early wins, and who was given the State Department. He has now done it with Republicans on the Hill. This is very nice of him, but not in his interests. Mr. Obama should have written the stimulus bill side by side with Republicans, picked them off, co-opted their views. Did he not understand their weakness? They had no real position from which to oppose high and wasteful spending, having backed eight years of it with nary a peep. They started the struggle over the stimulus bill at a real disadvantage. Then four things: Nancy Pelosi served up old-style pork, Mr. Obama swallowed it, Republicans shocked themselves by being serious, and then they startled themselves by being unified."

But what, in the end, will their unity produce? We know who'll get blamed if the thing doesn't work.

The NYT ombudsman chides the paper for allowing an unnamed source to say David Paterson rejected Caroline Kennedy for unspecified tax and nanny problems, and not owning up to its online role in the orchestrated leak. (Though others published worse unsubstantiated rumors.)

Some tough talk from the AP:

"The Bush administration turned the U.S. military into a global propaganda machine while imposing tough restrictions on journalists seeking to give the public truthful reports about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Associated Press chief executive Tom Curley said Friday.

"Much like in Vietnam, 'civilian policymakers and soldiers alike have cracked down on independent reporting from the battlefield' when the news has been unflattering, Curley said. 'Top commanders have told me that if I stood and the AP stood by its journalistic principles, the AP and I would be ruined.' "

I'd sure like to know which top commanders said that.

The Gallup poll now asks questions about Rush, as if he were a leader on Capitol Hill--and with Obama mentioning him, maybe he is:

"Republican support for Limbaugh is not monolithic. Although a clear majority of 60% of Republicans have a favorable opinion of Limbaugh, a not-insignificant 23% have an unfavorable opinion . . .

"Almost a third of Democrats say they have no opinion of Limbaugh, but negative views of him among Democrats outweigh positive opinions by more than a 10-to-1 ratio. Among independents, negatives outweigh positives by a 45% to 25% margin."

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