- The Washington Times - Monday, June 30, 2014

You know things are bad when a Democratic president complains that the mainstream media is ignoring him.

Increasingly in recent days, President Obama has been griping that the media isn’t covering his efforts to help middle class Americans.

“You don’t see it on TV sometimes — it’s not what the press and the pundits talk about,” Mr. Obama told an audience in Minnesota on Friday. “I’m here to tell you I’m listening, because you’re the reason I ran for president.”

A day earlier, Mr. Obama ate lunch with 36-year-old Rebekah Erler in Minneapolis to show that he understands the struggles of average people. He told Mrs. Erler that he got into politics to help people like her, although he said “you may not hear it, because the press will not report it.”

While there’s always friction between the White House and the media, observers say it’s particularly significant to hear such criticisms coming from Mr. Obama, who has enjoyed generally favorable press coverage during his presidency and has discovered new ways to manage the news.

“All presidents complain that the media don’t treat them very well — this one has less reason to complain than most,” said Richard Benedetto, a journalism professor at American University and a former White House reporter. “He’s lived with message control for so long that when it gets out of his control, it’s tough for him to swallow.”

SEE ALSO: Worse than Nixon? Obama White House accused of hiding public information

Presidents usually can count on the White House “bully pulpit” to get their message out, but some strategists say Mr. Obama’s task is complicated by sagging job approval ratings in his second term and eroding popularity in his own party.

“Despite the presidential megaphone, it is frustrating for any lame duck president to effectively communicate his agenda,” said Stuart Roy, a Republican strategist who served as communications director to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. “The chore is made even more difficult in an election year when the president’s poll numbers are significantly underwater and he loses the automatic echo chamber of his own party in Congress.”

With the crucial mid-term elections approaching, Mr. Obama’s planned message about boosting wages and creating economic opportunity is competing with news beyond the control of the White House press shop, such as the Veterans Affairs scandal, missing Internal Revenue Service emails and national security emergencies in Iraq and Ukraine.

The president has tried to dismiss some of those problems, such as the IRS and Benghazi, as “phony” scandals. But none of the stories are likely to be wished away.

“When foreign policy comes along, you can’t control that,” Mr. Benedetto said. “All kinds of events that are going on overseas are usurping the domestic agenda that Obama likes to stick to. He’s run into a string of foreign affairs problems that he can’t control, and he hasn’t done too well in terms of the public’s view of it.”

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Mr. Obama isn’t targeting “any specific news organization” with his complaints, and said the president’s observations about the media are more of “an indictment of Republicans who are focused on different priorities.”

He said Mr. Obama wants to focus on the issues that people talk about at the kitchen table each night. Those topics perhaps are not as “sexy or intellectually captivating as some other things on the news more regularly,” Mr. Earnest said.

“But it doesn’t mean they’re less important,” he added.

Mr. Obama’s grumbling about a lack of desired news coverage is all the more striking because his White House has used social media far more often than previous administrations to bypass traditional news organizations and to control the president’s message more tightly than ever.

In addition to Twitter accounts used by most top White House officials and occasionally by Mr. Obama himself, the White House produces a continuous stream of email updates and “daily snapshots” to promote the president’s agenda without the filtering of journalists who aren’t on the administration’s payroll.

Mr. Benedetto said the president’s complaints about the mainstream media are a tacit admission that the White House press operation doesn’t carry his message much beyond the Democratic base.

“His social media efforts are like preaching to the choir,” he said. “He’s not winning over an awful lot of people using new media.”

While the president is blaming the media for his garbled communications effort, sometimes his own administration is stepping on his message. On Thursday, for example, while Mr. Obama was in Minneapolis to talk about the economy, the administration also sent a notice to Congress requesting $500 million to train and equip moderate rebels in Syria’s civil war.

On the same day, the Supreme Court also issued two high-profile rulings, invalidating Mr. Obama’s recess appointments and striking down a state’s “buffer zones” for protesters at abortion clinics. All the stories received substantial news coverage, and pushed aside, to some extent, the news about Mr. Obama’s town hall discussion with citizens in Minnesota.

“Isn’t it odd that he president would be out in Minnesota talking about minimum wage, on the same day that his administration is announcing $500 million for fighting in Syria?” Mr. Benedetto said. “He doesn’t want to be associated with [Syria]. He wants to be associated with minimum wage. Well, you can’t have it both ways.”

It’s highly unlikely that Mr. Obama is launching a full-fledged war with the mainstream media.

As the president was returning to the White House from Minnesota on Friday, he emerged from the presidential helicopter on the South Lawn and spied a woman holding a baby at the rope line where journalists watch his arrivals and departures. The woman was Ann Compton, veteran ABC News reporter, and the infant was her six-month-old granddaughter, Olivia.

As Mr. Obama approached the rope line, he commanded, “Give me that baby.” Ms. Compton handed over the child, and as the president held the baby, he remarked, “She is adorable.”

As Mr. Obama has said, one of the best perks about being president is that “anybody will hand you their baby.”

Even, occasionally, the media.

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