But he sometimes seems wistful for a time when the news cycle was slower and the press didn't, as he put it on "The Daily Show" last summer, fixate on "shiny objects" and fail to "focus on the big, tough choices and decisions."
Sorry, Mr. President. But that time never actually existed. News didn't always travel as fast as it does today in 140-character dispatches, but the media have always hovered around shiny objects.
It's important to point this out because Obama and his aides like to promote the self-serving idea that they have it harder than pre-meme administrations. The latest example appears in Politico Magazine's annual media issue, published online on Thursday. Michael Grunwald writes that he interviewed more than two dozen current and former administration officials for "the inside story of how a great communicator lost the narrative."
Obama veterans have a slew of theories about what went wrong. … Most of all, they cite the dizzying changes in modern media, where Americans get their news where they choose, where conflict is the click of the realm, where lies travel at the speed of tweet while the truth is still annotating its Medium post.
They blame short-attention-span journalism for creating a distorted narrative of a flailing presidency, by freaking out over crises — double-digit unemployment, the Gulf oil spill, the healthcare.gov malfunction, Ebola — and virtually ignoring their resolutions. They think the bully pulpit has lost much of its power in an era of 24-hour cable and social media, though they admit they were slow to adjust to the new realities.
It's certainly true that previous presidents didn't have to worry about people making Vines out of their veeps' funny faces during State of the Union addresses (and having Washington Post bloggers share them with readers). No one's saying new media don't come with new challenges and annoyances.
But Team Obama is talking about bigger stuff. Speechwriter Cody Keenan told Politico that he's "still pissed off" about coverage of an October 2014 speech in which the president memorably declared, "I am not on the ballot this fall. ... But make no mistake: These policies are on the ballot. Every single one of them."
This was one snippet of a 54-minute address. But, uttered a month before a midterm election in which Democrats didn't necessarily want to be connected to some of Obama's unpopular moves, it dominated the news. (Here at The Fix, Chris Cillizza wrote that "Obama just gave every Republican ad-maker in the country more fodder for negative ads linking Democratic candidates to him.)
"Everything he said was true and important, and that one line got turned against him," Keenan complained.
Guess what, though? It's been this way for a long time.
It's also worth nothing that Obama didn't seem to mind when Mitt Romney got raked over a single comment — 47 percent — during the 2012 campaign. There was a broader context to that remark, too.
But let's go back farther. In 2003, there was no Twitter, no Facebook and no YouTube. That didn't help George W. Bush avoid prolonged media scrutiny for the "mission accomplished" banner hanging behind him during a speech on an aircraft carrier in which he announced, "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed."
The battle, of course, was far from over.
"Clearly, putting a 'mission accomplished' on an aircraft carrier was a mistake," Bush said in his final news conference as president. "It sent the wrong message. We were trying to say something differently but, nevertheless, it conveyed a different message."
Let's go back even farther. In 1976, there was no CNN, no Google and no mass-produced mobile phone. That didn't help Jimmy Carter avoid the media swarm that followed his admission in an interview with Playboy that "I've looked on a lot of women with lust." He went on:
I've committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something that God recognizes that I will do — and I have done it — and God forgives me for it. But that doesn't mean that I condemn someone who not only looks on a woman with lust but who leaves his wife and shacks up with somebody out of wedlock. Christ says, don't consider yourself better than someone else because one guy screws a whole bunch of women while the other guy is loyal to his wife.
(For the record, Carter was paraphrasing Christ there.)
Anyway, one quote quickly overshadowed all else. In an article that October (headline: "The Great Playboy Furor"), Newsweek chronicled the coverage:
The whole message touched off a bemused furor when Playboy released it to some of the media. "SEX, SIN, TEMPTATION — CARTER'S CANDID VIEWS," ran the headline in The Chicago Sun-Times. The Washington Star bannered, "CARTER ON SIN AND LUST: I'M HUMAN ... I'M TEMPTED." Not far from Carter's own hometown, The Columbus (Ga.) Enquirer ran a pink-tinted "TRUTH IS OUT" headline and later featured a cartoon depicting a Playboy bunny wearing a broad Carteresque grin.
All over the country, newspapers were making whoopee with Carter's overcandid confessions — and [Playboy reporter Robert] Scheer claimed to be no less put out about that than was the candidate himself. The interview, he pointed out, covered a wide range of issues, on which Carter struggled to express his real views.
"We decided to release it first to The New York Times, the Associated Press and the 'Today' show," Scheer says, "because we thought they would treat it in the most serious, least sensational form." But at that, Playboy seemed to know it had something hot on its hands. Though the interview was scheduled to appear in the November issue, the magazine offered it for release last week — about a month before the issue would hit the stands.
The Newsweek story went on to describe a humorous (as seen through modern eyes) scene in which a Playboy editor read portions of the Carter piece over the phone to an NBC News reporter in Atlanta, who then relayed it to the "Today" show.
Like I said, news did travel slower back in the day.
But this notion that media sensibilities have changed dramatically and made Obama's White House tenure uniquely difficult is pure fantasy. The president and his aides should stop whining.