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Fractured media no match for Obama

- The Washington Times - Monday, April 27, 2009

The Obama White House has watched the disintegration of the old media order and drawn a simple conclusion - the president's popularity is the dominant entity in the cluttered, chaotic modern media environment.

In separate interviews this week in their adjoining West Wing offices, press secretary Robert Gibbs and Deputy Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer talked at length about the multiplicity of sources - newspapers, network and cable television, radio, blogs - that comprise a news cycle that churns virtually around the clock.

"There are so many outlets and so many places that are driving the news that, in the end, nothing gets driven," Mr. Gibbs said.

But both men indicated that this can work to their advantage.

It is harder for the White House to hammer "a central narrative," Mr. Gibbs said, but "stories that you think are going to drive the day in a negative way maybe don't have the impact" they would have had in the past.

Mr. Pfeiffer, a low-key 33-year-old former Senate staffer, indicated that President Obama is their narrative.

"The president came into office with a tremendous reservoir of good will and credibility with the American people and, as we run into the 100-day mark, he's actually expanded that since he's been at the White House, and that's been a pretty, probably unprecedented feat," Mr. Pfeiffer said.

Mr. Gibbs, Mr. Pfeiffer and senior adviser David Axelrod control the White House message and the president's image, now that Communications Director Ellen Moran is leaving for a top Commerce Department job. A decision on her replacement - many expect it to be Mr. Pfeiffer - could be announced as early as Monday.

A senior White House official who did not want his name attached to statements about specific media outlets was more blunt about the power equation as viewed by the Obama White House.

"The way it used to be was that any White House or the Senate or the House or anyone like that was held hostage to a very small number of elite media outlets - the New York Times, The Washington Post, the networks," he said.

"The power dynamic has shifted for three reasons. One, there are more media sources than there ever were before. Two, there's no money. Newspapers are bleeding money. There are so many channels that the network channels are bleeding viewers. They're less powerful. They control less than they did before.

"And three, Obama is more popular than all of them combined."

Like many of his predecessors, Mr. Obama has strong favorable personal ratings in the polls just over three months into his term. In addition, an Associated Press-GfK poll released Thursday found that the percentage of Americans who think the country is moving "in the right direction" is greater than those who don't for the first time in more than four years.

Forty-eight percent say the United States is moving in the right direction compared with 44 percent who say the country is moving in the wrong direction, the first time since 2004 that the optimists have outnumbered the pessimists.

"What the numbers are showing is confidence in President Obama even though economic conditions haven't improved dramatically. It's a different question than popularity," said Faiz Shakir, research director at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington.

Three months after sweeping into power, the Obama communicators acknowledged the tenacity of a constantly evolving media revolution that at times appeared to overwhelm the Bush administration.

"It used to be there was one news cycle a day, and then CNN came and then there were a few news cycles a day. Now, there's almost no such thing as a news cycle, because there are so many of them," Mr. Pfeiffer said.

Mr. Gibbs, who said he is now "conditioned to roll over in the middle of the night" and check his BlackBerry, said the news world now is more of an unruly beast than a predictable cycle.

"There are very few ways in which you can corral it. You just have to understand that it is," he said.

Meanwhile, newspapers and TV networks are cutting jobs, downsizing operations, putting employees on unpaid furlough or imposing pay reductions. Some newspapers are shutting down entirely.

White House aides say they are filling the communications void with what Mr. Pfeiffer called "an incredibly aggressive regional media strategy," which has included bringing reporters from local papers across the country to the White House for interviews with the president.

The Obama team also is working with the organization from its campaign, which holds e-mail addresses and cell phone numbers for more than 13 million supporters. A pledge drive organized last month used those volunteers to sign up more supporters and create momentum behind the president's $3.6 trillion budget.

The White House also is using more video and Web-based communication, turning the weekly address from a radio distribution into a YouTube product, and conducting an online town hall meeting where Mr. Obama took questions from a live audience and a Web audience at the same time.

Mr. Obama's decision to call on a reporter from the liberal Web site Huffington Post at his first White House press conference was a nod to the increasing power of Web-only outlets. At his second press conference, he showed his willingness to buck convention by calling on reporters from military newspaper Stars and Stripes, and from Ebony magazine, which focuses on black issues.

Dan Bartlett, who was a top adviser to President George W. Bush and is now president of Public Strategies Inc., said the Obama team is certainly "maximizing their platform," but he has not "seen anything revolutionary being done."

The image of the White House as tech-savvy, Mr. Bartlett said, is "probably driven a little bit more by symbolism than reality, with the president having a BlackBerry and stuff like that."

The new White House team has not been tested with a slide in poll numbers, and its approach "can only go so far in a country where the basic question we ask of public officials has always been, 'What have you done for me lately?' " said Stephen Hess, a governance studies fellow at the Brookings Institution. "When the 'lately' is 'now' should concern Obama's communicators."

Story lines that are developing could prove damaging to the Obama White House.

Conservatives are coalescing around an image of Mr. Obama as a weak leader who is unable or unwilling to confront foreign dictators or the American far left. But rage is also growing among liberal activists over the administration's continued use of a military prison in Afghanistan and of the state secrets act to protect information.

Although the White House brain trust will no doubt be looking for ways to minimize the president's negatives, the president has derisively referred to the daily media drumbeat as nothing more than "cable chatter."

Neither Mr. Gibbs nor Mr. Pfeiffer rejected the word "disdain" when asked whether that was how they felt about most media coverage.

"I think you could say it's, uh, White House-wide," Mr. Pfeiffer said.

"Because the media has become so fast that it's feeding on itself, and you can easily get drawn into overreacting to short-term news cycles ... the key is to sort of surf the wave but keep your eye on the long ball."