Politico greeted night owls and early risers to a fantastic article about the White House press strategy. The tenets have been the same for every President, controlling the President’s public image through strategic use of information - but no President has had the options that Barack Obama has.
Since great minds steal, anyone seeking to copy the Obama team’s strategy should consider three major points:
1. News outlets are no longer the gatekeepers for mass media exposure.
White House photographers have been commonplace in the past few decades; Politico notes that the current White House has made those photographs ubiquitous on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. That these channels exist allow the President to go over the media’s head, but without mass media branding they wouldn’t work as well.
Ronald Reagan and his predecessors faced three networks and a handful of national newspapers. Bill Clinton presided over the rise of cable news networks, as MSNBC and Fox joined CNN to increase scrutiny on the sturm and drang of partisan politics; online media helped increase that during George W. Bush’s administration.
Big News is now the victim of its own success. There’s now a general awareness of political comings and goings, enough that political topics spill into entertainment shows. And think about all the channels on your TV dial today. Quasi-news shows – like The Daily Show, The View, and the Today Show – now allow politicians to maintain visibility without getting asked hard questions. President Obama will have plenty of eyeballs on him when he fills out his NCAA brackets this year, but ESPN’s Stuart Scott probably won’t ask him any pointed questions about Benghazi or gun control.
(Sidebar: Wouldn’t it be hilarious if Obama did run into a tough line of questioning on ESPN of all places? ”So you like Duke to come out of the South Region. What did you think was going to come out of the south when you shipped those guns to Mexico?”)
2. Brand matters
This visibility serves to underscore a certain identity. Visibility in and of itself is one thing, but carefully selecting the outlet where you’re seen helps create a message.
Obama wants voter to identify with him personally, so sharing his love for sports on ESPN helps. Brief interviews to network anchors, fluff interviews on The View, and vague calls to action in the State of the Union all serve to underscore that he’s in control, but not so wonkish that he would be unapproachable.
Obama is able to pull this strategy off now because he is the President, has had two national campaigns, and is a known personality to most Americans. During his 2008 primary campaign, he had to create that interest by launching a campaign that looked and felt different from traditional campaigns – from the Pepsi-ish logo to the embracing of supporter-created materials. Sarah Palin tried to eschew the “lamestream media” in favor of communication via Facebook post – but her story was already written for her when she abruptly resigned as governor. Her branding efforts were far more traditionally political, so they predictably flopped when she tried to use non-traditional outlets to reinforce them.
Palin’s attempt to bypass the media is a good example of how a clumsy, ham-fisted attempt to mimic Obama’s White House is doing can backfire. If you’re running for dog catcher and there’s no demand for media accessibility, some of these won’t work; however if you’re the person everyone wants to interview, you can call some of the shots.
3. Working harder and smarter trumps media bias.
For decades – decades! – Republicans have groused about media bias. They’ll point to surveys that show reporters tend to vote Democrat, and they’ll moan that no Republican will get the same treatment as Obama.
There will always be folks like Chris Matthews who fall in love with candidates like Obama and worship them with an illogical fervor that gives cult followers a run for their money. But the creation of good coverage by the Obama Administration is more the result of meticulous work than a happy accident of reporter preference. The communications team knows where the President needs to be seen and how to make the most out of each channel they use. Backed with the currency of access to the White House, they put themselves in a position to write the rules of engagement – and aren’t shy about doing so.
Will [INSERT GOP CANDIDATE HERE] be able to create a carbon copy in 2016? Probably not in terms of outcome. But in terms of overall attitude, strategies, and tactics, a lot of what the Obama Team does is worth swiping.
Amid the celebration of the President’s as-yet-unproven open government initiative this week came the concept of a tool for government to “elicit expert citizen participation.” From TechPresident:
Rather than throwing the doors open to public participation, the wisdom here is that crowdsourcing platforms can be targeted and nuanced enough to extract very high quality input from a select group of people.
If the “ExpertNet” program actually happens (it’s still in the early development stages), it would strike a bit of a blow against the concept of open government. Though it could expand participation for certain citizens, the message to most people seems to be to keep your mouths shut and let the smart people take care of the country.
But, like any communication from the voters that finds its way to a government agency, much depends on the person opening the mail. So even if all citizens are allowed to participate, the pencil-pusher will separate the grain from the chaff. At the risk of sounding cynical, bureaucrats (whether left or right) will consider the opinions they agree with to be more “expert.”
As for the other side… why would anyone need to hear from those slack-jawed yokels?
The White House’s Open Government Initiative – President Barack Obama’s directive to for more transparency and public involvement in the often-arcane machinations of the Executive Branch – celebrates its first birthday today. The initiative’s first year has been largely overshadowed by legislative fights, but the real test will come in 2011 – when the Obama Administration likely becomes the Ministry of Regulation.
The President faces a split Congress in 2011, and lawmaking wasn’t all that easy when he had strong majorities in both Houses. Beyond that, he faces the dual risks of losing his far-left base and alienating the middle by allowing the Republicans to play some offense with their House majority. Of course, any revolutionary bill passed by a Republican House will be shot down by the Democratic Senate – and then the Democrats become the sideline-sitting, Slurpee-sipping, “Party of No” just in time for the 2012 election – freeing them up to hand down edicts on everything from internet regulation to carbon emissions.
What is a President to do?
The answer lies in the alphabet soup of agencies throughout the Executive branch, including such classics as the FCC, the FTC, the SEC, and everyone’s favorite, the EPA. Each has regulatory authority delegated from Congress. And, unlike the President’s allies in Congress, bureaucrats will not have to face voters in 2012.
Regulatory agencies are not immune to public input, but they sure can make it a challenge.
For instance, anyone who has been involved in a land use issue which included federal oversight knows the mass of documents required. Each document (along with draft, final, and supplemental versions) must have its own public comment period, where citizens can submit their thoughts.
In theory, that should mean more avenues for input; in practice it is confusing and redundant. Making the process more complex is the fact that each agency may count comments differently; a regulator has the discretion to decide if a comment should be dismissed for being immaterial. Individual bureaucrats have tremendous interpretive power over the public input that crosses their desk.
Is the grassroots wave against big government – and the nascent GOP House majority they produced – already backed into a corner? Far from it.
The American people haven’t fallen back in love with Washington quite yet, so the electorate is likely to listen to the case against shadow laws via bureaucracy. Grassroots activists should participate in comment periods whenever they can – and make sure elected policymakers get a copy of the same letter or message that went to the regulators. (It isn’t as much fun as a protest or an angry phone call to your local Congressional office, but it’s still important.)
House Republicans can and will schedule oversight hearings. These hearings should include scrutiny over public participation opportunities Members of Congress should hold regulators accountable for providing opportunities for public access to the process – and for being receptive to the will of the people.
The Administration, which so dearly values open government, will be happy to comply – right?
The left in American politics loves to claim the somewhat disorganized, unpolished Tea Party movement amounts to a hostile takeover of the GOP by fringe lunatics. But to better understand the unrest that gave rise to the Tea Partiers on the right, one might look at what TechPresident called “The Obama Disconnect.”
When the Obama campaign of 2008 became the Obama government of 2009, it meant moving away from theoretical campaign promises and into the process of regulating and legislating. Meanwhile, the famed campaign apparatus – including the 13 million strong database and the online infrastructure – became “Organizing for America,” or OFA
Now, activists are frustrated with OFA. TechPresident chronicled the plight of Marta Evry, an Obama campaign worker who remained active after the election. Evry is disappointed in the Administration’s efforts to pass a health care bill despite losses on key provisions for liberal ideology – points such as a public option and expanding abortion services.
It’s much the same energy that conservative activists have right now. And just as Tea Party-inspired excitement does not necessarily translate to blind support for Republicans, left wing disillusionment with Democrat incumbents will soften their prospects in 2010.
I guess it’s been out since May, but I just caught this neat demonstration of the growth of the National Debt in terms of a road trip.