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Obama's Media Offensive

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Post asked political experts what, if anything, President Obama has gained from his media offensive. Below are contributions from Karl Rove, Douglas E. Schoen, Dan Schnur, Ed Rogers, Dana Perino, Linda Chavez, and Lanny J. Davis.

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KARL ROVE

White House deputy chief of staff and senior adviser to George W. Bush; columnist for Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal; Fox News contributor

White House aides think President Obama has infinite charm and persuasion. They're wrong. He's on the edge of becoming pedestrian and boring.

In his appearances on five -- count them, five -- Sunday programs, Obama succeeded in burying the message he wanted to highlight -- health care -- with the news that he's skeptical about additional troops for Afghanistan unless accompanied by a strategic shift.

Obama succeeded in picking a fight not just with George Stephanopoulos on when is a tax a tax but also with Merriam-Webster. The $750-a-person tax for not having health insurance is a tax. And its imposition will break Obama's pledge never to raise taxes on people making less then $250,000 a year. Again. He broke it with his cigarette tax, and the principal Democratic House health-care bill has four new taxes on all Americans.

Obama proved that quantity is not better than quality. Pulling a "quintuple" on health care didn't move the needle. He said nothing new and so was on the defensive. And insulting Fox News on the record made the Obama press shop look weak and small.

DOUGLAS E. SCHOEN

Democratic pollster and author

I don't believe that President Obama's media blitz will affect public opinion. Rather, the many media appearances emphasize that Obama is putting virtually all of his prestige behind health care (including the "public option" that he continues to support). Obama is effectively betting the ranch, but it's hard to see what is going to be accomplished by this latest outreach if his speech to the joint session of Congress produced no fundamental movement in public opinion.

If Obama's primary goal were to influence swing voters, he would have gone on Fox News, which gets a broader audience of independents and Republicans. I say this as a Fox News contributor who has seen the network's power in reaching beyond the core Democratic base time and again.

By going on the "Late Show With David Letterman" and bantering about a potato, Obama runs the risk of trivializing one of the most important challenges facing his administration. He has been on Letterman five times already. These latest media appearances will underscore to Democrats the importance of passing health-care reform but few, if any, wavering voters will be convinced of the value of reform.

Obama would do far better by restricting his media blitzes and instead engaging in the nitty-gritty of legislative negotiations with Democratic leaders and the few Republican leaders open to supporting his plan. This should take place behind closed doors.

DAN SCHNUR

Director of the University of Southern California's Unruh Institute of Politics; communications director for John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign

Most people don't watch television news programs on Sunday morning, and even political junkies don't watch five of them. So President Obama's media tour this past weekend certainly wasn't designed to move poll numbers. But at a time when overall public opinion is less important than counting votes in Congress, it was important to appeal to an audience that was fascinated by Obama's five-pronged interview strategy.

On the other hand, normal people do watch David Letterman. But that late-night audience is less important to the White House than the major daily newspapers and cable newscasts that are still intrigued when a political figure crosses into popular culture. So the president spends an hour on Letterman's couch and will earn another day or two of coverage. That might not interest Jay Leno or Conan O'Brien's audience, but the people who watch Keith Olbermann and Bill O'Reilly will be captivated. And if your goal is to turn blue-dog Democrats into votes for health-care reform, that's good enough.

ED ROGERS

White House staffer to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; chairman of BGR Group

At most, all President Obama will accomplish with his media blitz is crowding out some of his critics for a moment; like his speech to Congress last week, the effects of the media blitz will be short-lived.

In fact, I think there has been more news coverage about whether the "full Ginsburg" was even a good idea than there was about anything he actually said. The president hasn't said anything to refresh or energize the health-care debate. He hasn't really had anything new to say. If anything, the message has been diluted by hard questions regarding Afghanistan. The real health-care news last week was the introduction of the package of Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), and the president hasn't even said much about that.

While U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan will not be a distraction during tonight's David Letterman appearance, I can't imagine what substantive goodwill come from being on this comedy show. To give the White House the benefit of the doubt, maybe staffers think being on Letterman helps the president be more likable and that that helps his agenda in Washington. It won't work.

I suppose White House handlers believe that the president's convincing demeanor and eloquence will somehow carry the day. If that were the case there would have already been a Rose Garden bill-signing ceremony. Obama is good communicator, a critical asset for a world leader. But you still have to have something to say. Massive air time is no substitute for a real plan.

DANA PERINO

White House press secretary to President George W. Bush

President Obama's media blitz was billed as part of his continuing push for health-care reform, following a prime-time address and appearances on morning television shows and "60 Minutes." I thought that the administration would have something new to say to keep the conversation alive, but with its desire to stay flexible on details, officials held their cards close. In fact, the only news was on Afghanistan troop levels, ACORN's disgrace and the president's graceful comments about racism in America. All of that is fine and good. But is fine good enough?

Every communications professional approaches media relations differently, and by no means is there an exact science. I try to consider this question: To what end are we granting this interview? The president's time is precious, and you don't want to waste a moment.

After doing this much media, one would have expected public opinion to move in a positive direction. That's not what has happened, recent polls show. If increasing numbers of people dislike a plan the more they hear about it, then something's gotta give. The administration will always be able to command attention, so waiting for a more opportune moment -- like the eve of a vote -- might help. Otherwise, it is spinning its wheels. And who has time for that?

LINDA CHAVEZ

Chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity; former member of the Reagan administration

If President Obama hopes his media blitz will boost public support for an overhaul of the health-care system, he will be disappointed. The president's considerable charm and intellect are not enough to persuade the large majority of Americans, who already have health coverage, that government tampering will improve their benefits. The words "I'm from the government and I'm here to help" still provoke skepticism from many Americans, no matter how well delivered.

And the president didn't help matters by using his Sunday-morning appearances to deliver a sermon on civility when he's been less than civil himself. It rings more than a little hollow when the president claims what he'd "like to see is all of us reward decency and civility in our political discourse," when, just days earlier in his address to Congress, he accused his critics of "lies" and "bogus claims spread by those whose only agenda is to kill reform at any price."

LANNY J. DAVIS

Special counsel to President Bill Clinton from 1996 to 1998

Anytime President Obama is communicating with the American people -- without someone interrupting him and shouting "you lie" -- it is a political plus. He is attractive, intelligent, balanced and likable. Now it is time for him to endorse a specific proposal -- either one of his own or one already introduced in Congress -- and defend that plan, while showing a willingness to compromise to gain Republican support. His media blitz should help solidify support among Democrats -- but the White House needs to appeal to people (like myself) who are on TV wanting to defend and promote a national health-care bill. We need something specific on the table from the president. (I would recommend the Wyden-Bennett Healthy Americans Act, which already has broad bipartisan support from liberal and conservative senators.)



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