- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2014

It is a cultural moment, and a public relations opportunity: President Obama and Pope Francis meet face to face Thursday, a phenomenon that is being heralded as a red carpet event by press and pundits. Speculation, showbiz and melodrama is rampant in news coverage far in advance. Photographers and TV crews are mulling over how to best frame a dream portrait of two leaders who are powerful for different reasons.

“The pictures alone will set certain conservative hearts on edge and make liberal Catholics swoon. But will the visit yield more than a photo-op for a president struggling with low poll numbers?” asks Michael Sean Winters, who covers politics for the National Catholic Reporter.

And from the public relations realm comes this analysis from Kevin McCauley, a columnist for O’Dwyers PR, an industry publication.

“The hard-pressed American president, who has long lost his image mojo, desperately needs a boost. Good news: It may come in the guise of Pope Francis. The pontiff, who has just completed his first year in the seat of St. Peter, still draws international raves,” Mr. McCauley says.

He adds, “As captain of the shipwreck, it’s incumbent on President Obama to steer the beached ship of state back into the deep blue sea. In adopting Pope Francis’ communications model, one grounded in transparency and inclusion, the president would forge his own second coming — on the image front.”

Meanwhile, the outcome of it all is subject to much interpretation. Mr. Obama, who arrives in Rome on Wednesday night, has been wrangling with serious and complex national security issues, plus Russian saber-rattling all week. He will be primed for something of a more cultural nature. The news media is already creating the narrative.

Among the many headlines heralding pontiff and president 24 hours in advance of their meet-and-greet:

“For Obama, salvation in a photo op?” (The Detroit News), “Will there be a selfie?” (Guardian Liberty Voice), “What Pope Francis can teach President Obama” (Religious News Service), “Don’t expect President Obama to get a lot of love from Pope Francis” (The Week Magazine), “Don’t expect a mind meld” (Wall Street Journal), “The Catholic roots of Obama’s activism” (The New York Times), “The truth about Obama’s ‘Catholic Roots’” (National Review Online), “Obama oils China-Vatican links” (Asia Times).

RUN, JEB, RUN

“Do not stop the presses. Former governor Jeb Bush is most certainly running for president. And here’s a stunner. So is Hillary Clinton. Really. You may go back to sleep now. How do we know Jeb has visions of Air Force One dancing in his dreams?” asks Daniel Ruth, a veteran columnist for the Tampa Bay Times.

“Would you slink into Las Vegas to schmooze gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson, who regards GOP presidential nominees as if they were trophy heads mounted in his den, if you had no interest in the White House? Bush is not going to Vegas to catch Meat Loaf’s act at Planet Hollywood. There are many mysteries in life. But Bush’s political ambition is not one of them,” Mr. Ruth says, referencing the National Jewish Coalition’s four-day gathering at the glittering Venetian Hotel in Vegas, which begins Thursday and counts Mr. Adelson as both pointman and a pivotal campaign donor.

FOR THE LEXICON

“Weiner!”

— Title of new political column by Anthony Weiner, to begin running in the International Business Times on Friday. The publication cites the disgraced former New York congressman’s “brashness and wonkiness” as his major appeal.

THE BIG SHUSH ON OBAMACARE

Hush, hush, and more hush. That seems to be the case with Obamacare on the broadcast news: The “big three” networks are simply not giving the health care law much coverage during its troubled launch and uncertain spot on public radar. NBC, CBS and ABC gave the law just over 31 minutes of coverage from Jan. 1 to March 24, according to a Media Research Center analysis. That is less than 1 percent of the total evening broadcast news coverage during the 63-day study period.

“The three network evening newscasts have minimized, spun or ignored every negative development about Obamacare, while at the same time touting staged pro-Obamacare publicity stunts, such as President Obama’s appearance on ‘Between Two Ferns,’ a Web-based comedy show in March,” says Rich Noyes, research director for the conservative watchdog.

“The review found just 29 stories that mentioned Obamacare. Twelve of those were full reports, while the other 17 were short items, under 30 seconds in length, read by the news anchor. Or they were passing references to the health care law in longer political stories,” he adds.

It’s no wonder, then, that the American public is still confused about health care reform.

“Bad news, such as lackluster enrollment statistics or new delays in key elements of the law, were usually given just a few seconds of coverage, according to the study. Not one of the evening newscasts bothered to cover polls — even their own — showing the law’s continued unpopularity,” Mr. Noyes adds. “And only one report — on CBS — profiled someone victimized by Obamacare’s new rules, something ABC and NBC viewers have yet to hear about in 2014.”

THE BIG NOISE ON BENGHAZI

There could be new information emerging about the terrorist attacks on Benghazi 18 months ago, this from the Citizen’s Commission on Benghazi, a group of retired military and intelligence community officers plus national security analysts organized last year by Accuracy in Media, a watchdog group.

The commission has filed 55 Freedom of Information Act requests about the matter with the FBI, State Department and Defense Department with some specific questions in mind.

To name a few: “Why did Washington officials ignore repeated concerns about security threats in Benghazi? Who signed off on weapons exchanges to al Qaeda-linked rebel groups? Who ordered the cover up of links to terrorism in the administration’s talking points?”

Former CIA officer Clare Lopez, a member of the group, deems the unknown factors “gravely disturbing evidence of professional failure and abuse of both public office and public trust.”

And the information they’ve uncovered after a year of investigations? Details are forthcoming, the organization says, and “soon.”

DUCK AND COVER

“I’d like to get him out there with some camouflage and a gun and we could sit out there and talk, I’d like to talk and debate and find out what’s going on in his brain a little more. I don’t shy away from people I disagree with.”

“Duck Dynasty” star Willie Robertson, proposing to take President Obama on a duck hunt in Louisiana, to the quite fabulous talk radio host Laura Ingraham.

POLL DU JOUR

72 percent of likely U.S. voters say middle class people have it “toughest” in the American economic system.

70 percent say the current economy makes it hard for the middle class to make ends meet.

65 percent believe “anyone” can get ahead in America if they work hard enough.

65 percent are “optimistic” they will better off financially in five years.

64 percent say economic rules in the U.S. “unfairly favor the rich.”

32 percent blame President Obama for the current state of the economy; 13 percent blame Democrats in Congress, 12 percent blame Republicans in Congress.

9 percent blame “big companies,” 4 percent blame wealthy people, 4 percent blame labor unions.

Source: A George Washington University “Battleground Poll” of 1,000 registered “likely” U.S. voters conducted March 16-20.

Duck calls, cat calls to jharper@washingtontimes.com

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