President Obama is either flying high or floundering. It just depends on where you are and what you are watching.
All last week, White House officials and the president himself signaled a desire to reach beyond the Washington “echo chamber” — in senior adviser David Axelrod’s words — which means the endless, 24-hour cable news chatter, the instantaneous reporting and commentary on blogs and websites, and the latest and greatest fad, the stream-of-consciousness trickle coming from hundreds of Twitterers.
Obama calls it a “hall of mirrors.” “One day I’m a genius, one day I’m a bum,” he said at a March 25 fund-raiser.
A case in point: In the fallout from the news that AIG executives took multimillion-dollar bonuses, the wisdom was that it marked the worst week of Obama’s presidency, a “Katrina moment” that unleashed uncontrollable populist anger that threatened his agenda. You would have thought that this meant torch mobs marching down Wall Street and heading to D.C. next, until you realized that most of the hysterical anger was virtual, and that Obama’s poll numbers haven’t exactly fallen off a cliff. A CBS News poll showed that the public gave him mixed marks on his handling of AIG, but his overall job performance number remained unchanged — at 64% approval. There’s no doubt the anger is out there, along with longer-term fears of the national debt, but it doesn’t seem to have attached itself to Obama yet: His handling of the economy was even up slightly.
Political commentator Lawrence O’Donnell, who is part of the Washington and Hollywood worlds, says the problem comes when pundits try to gauge public opinion. “What you are working with on TV is a bunch of men in makeup guessing what people completely unlike them are thinking.”
His extreme example is from early 1998, when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke and the assumption immediately was that it would mark impeachment and even an end to the Clinton presidency. Instead, Clinton’s popularity remained high.
The Obama White House solution to the D.C. bubble has been to blanket the media in a big way, deploying the president beyond the Beltway to a series of town-hall forums and, in uncharted territory for a White House occupant, to a Univision award ceremony, ESPN as a college basketball bracketologist (the sports pundits noting in admiration that Obama correctly predicted 14 of the Sweet 16 teams) and Jay Leno’s couch. Lest he be accused of only playing softball, the president sat down for another interview with Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes,” and threw the D.C. press corps a bone with a primetime press conference, albeit one where he slighted top reporters from major print publications.
It’s not hard to see why the White House would resort to such an all-Obama, all-the-time strategy. In a fractured media environment, brand ubiquity is the name of the game. But like his predecessors, there’s also the familiar refrain that D.C. culture is too obsessed with tactics to see the bigger picture.
Take the way the president talked about his “outrage” at the AIG bonuses on “The Tonight Show” as compared with his response to the White House press corps. Jay Leno asked, “Doing what I do, you kind of study body language a little bit, and you looked very angry about the bonuses. Actually stunned.” Obama responded, “Stunned. Stunned is the word.”
At the press conference, CNN’s Ed Henry was far less deferential, pressing Obama, after the president initially dodged the question, “On AIG, why did you wait days to come out and express that outrage?” The president looked irritated and answered tersely, “It took us a couple of days because I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak, you know?”
The upshot was that it didn’t matter what venue Obama was in, his economic message was the same: Patience, please.
The dichotomy of what the average Joe cares about (or at least the one channeled by Leno) and what the White House press corps is concerned with is nothing new. Writing afterward on CNN’s website, Henry said that he was “heading into this event with the same strategy: make news on something unexpected.” As much as they sought headlines, reporters also displayed reportorial skepticism, and an excess of that, as we’ve all learned, is certainly a lot better than the opposite.
But what is different is that the divergence has come so early in the new president’s term. It is not so surprising when you consider the changing media landscape, where websites and cable networks have treated Obama’s First Hundred Days as if it were an extension of the campaign. Obama’s team also bears some guilt for running as if it were 2008, with the deployment of door-to-door volunteers to promote his budget.
Obama is trying to explain why they’ll be plodding in an environment that demands prompt response. The Washington Post’s Dan Balz wrote this week, “Obama’s press conference was a reminder that he hopes to operate on a different clock than the 24/7 media culture that surrounds him and his advisers. Part of that is strategic, an effort to buy time.”
Can he really do it in an environment where one day he’s too dour, the next he’s laughing too much; where his demeanor is too aloof, but then he risks overexposure?
O’Donnell says a bit wryly, “I am going to wait to see polling that shows he’s making mistakes in the way he presents himself, before I say he is making mistakes in the way he presents himself.”
Obama’s latest chance to change things came March 26, when he held a first-ever White House town-hall webcast, an event he said allowed him to “talk directly to the American people.”
“What matters to you and your families, and what people here in Washington are focused on, aren’t always one and the same thing,” he said to a gathering who watched him answer questions displayed on a bigscreen TV.
As he spoke, you couldn’t help but notice where he was: the Executive Mansion’s East Room, a stately hall that has, fittingly enough, mirrors on the walls.