How Obama plays media like a fiddle

How Obama
plays media like a fiddle

By: John F. Harris and Jim
VandeHei

February 7, 2011 04:44 AM EST


In early November, Barack Obama
was one sad sack of a president — his agenda repudiated by midterm voters, his
political judgment scorned by commentators, his future darkened by a growing
belief he might be a one-time president.

In early February, Obama is
master of the moment — his polls on the
upswing
, his political dexterity applauded by pundits, his status as
Washington’s dominant figure unchallenged even by Republicans.

This
three-month metamorphosis says something about Obama’s survival skills, but the
turnabout says even more about the mainstream media: Obama is playing the press like a fiddle.
(Related: Obama’s latest joint news conference)

He is doing it by
exploiting some of the most long-standing traits among reporters who cover
politics and government — their favoritism for politicians perceived as
ideologically centrist and willing to profess devotion to Washington’s
oft-honored, rarely practiced civic religion of bipartisanship.

Time’s
Mark Halperin has hailed Obama as “magnetic,” “distinguished” and “inspiring” —
in one story. ABC’s Christiane Amanpour saw “Reaganesque” optimism and
“Kennedyesque” encouragement — all in one speech. Howard Fineman, the former
Newsweek columnist who now writes for The Huffington Post, said conductor Obama
was now leading a “love train” through D.C.

Swing voters are swooning
, too. It’s no coincidence. Polls
suggest that many independents have many of the same easily aroused erogenous
zones as reporters — and improved poll numbers lead to more coverage of the
Obama-gets-his-groove-back narrative. (See: Obama’s SOTU challenge to GOP)

Sustaining an effective
governing center over the long term would be a formidable achievement by Obama.
Riding a short-term wave of centrism fever, by contrast, has proved surprisingly
simple.
Here’s how Obama used the MSM to take a fast lane to the middle of
the road.

Bow to Bipartisanship

Conservatives
are convinced the vast majority of reporters at mainstream news organizations
are liberals who hover expectantly for each new issue of The Nation.

It’s
just not true. The majority of political writers we know might more accurately
be accused of centrist bias.

That is, they believe broadly in government
activism but are instinctually skeptical of anything that smacks of ideological
zealotry and are quick to see the public interest as being distorted by
excessive partisanship. Governance, in the Washington media’s ideal, should be a
tidier and more rational process than it is.

In this fantasy, every
pressing problem could be solved with a blue-ribbon commission chaired by Sam
Nunn and David Gergen that would go into seclusion at Andrews Air Force Base for
a week, not coming back until it had a deal to cut entitlements and end
obesity.

Bill Clinton’s best press came when he made a deal with Newt
Gingrich on the budget, and George W. Bush got favorable coverage when he reached a deal
with Ted Kennedy on education reform and in the brief period after Sept. 11 when
the terrorist attacks brought Washington together.

Obama is taking
advantage of the press’s bias for bipartisan process, a preference that often
transcends the substance of any bipartisan policy. (See: GOP, Dem lawmakers sit together)

It was an easy
choice. In the wake of the Democratic rout in November, for instance, it would
have been political suicide to risk letting taxes go up. So Obama shrewdly
ignored his own party’s liberals and made a big show of wanting to cooperate
with Republicans on the Bush tax cuts — and reaped a bonanza of favorable news
stories as a result.

He’s been getting more for his embrace of free trade
in a recent pact with South Korea and his plan to speak Monday to the U.S.
Chamber of Commerce, with whom he earlier had a high-profile clash.

 

Respect the Village Elders

Most political reporters
live in Washington. So it’s not really surprising that they tend to respect
presidents who show respect for Washington culture, Washington rituals and,
above all, Washington operatives.

Early in his presidency Obama — like
many of his predecessors when they first arrived — was seen as cool or even
hostile to permanent Washington.

After the midterm defeats, it was an
important part of his rehabilitation to be seen as having learned his
lesson.

Among the stops in this process was consulting with eminent
Washington worthies who are themselves veterans of White Houses past. Aides let
it be known that Obama had huddled with Ken Duberstein, a lobbyist who was chief
of staff under Ronald Reagan; John Podesta, who was chief of staff under Clinton
and now runs the Center for American Progress; and Gergen, who doesn’t actually
live in Washington but (so far) has served under four presidents (Nixon, Ford,
Reagan, Clinton) and is the high priest of Washington
bipartisanship.

Let History Drive the
Narrative

Reporters are suckers for comparisons — often glib or
even bogus comparisons — between current and past presidents. Obama and aides
did not much like this habit when he was being regularly compared to Jimmy Carter.

But in recent weeks
Obama has managed to turn the history game to his advantage by ostentatiously
inviting comparisons to two more successful presidents: Reagan and
Clinton.

Neither got terrific coverage while president. Both are viewed
in retrospect as effective two-term presidents who survived and prospered during
their time in Washington.

Obama was seen carrying a copy of Lou Cannon’s
Reagan biography under his arm on vacation. And his aides have happily played
along with stories drawing links between the two — despite oceanwide differences
in ideology, temperament, intellectual habits, personal history and rhetorical
style.

In the category of You Can’t Make It Up, weeks of stories and
columns about the comparison culminated with this cover of Time magazine — “Why
Obama Loves Reagan” — and a manufactured picture of the two men side by side,
smiling optimistically.

Obama couldn’t buy an ad like that.

The
only thing better would have been for all three major networks to call last
month’s State of the Union speech “Reaganesque” for its uplifting tone. He got
that, too.

The Clinton comparisons are a bit trickier, given the
complicated history between the two men and the Obama team’s previous publicly
expressed condescension toward Clinton’s presidency.

But here, too, Obama
let it be known to The New York Times that he was reading Taylor Branch’s book
on Clinton. And he brought Clinton in for a lengthy conversation in December and
even invited him to hold forth in the White House briefing
room.

Meanwhile, the post-midterm White House inner circle looks like a
recycling center for Clinton administration veterans
: Bill
Daley
as White House chief of staff; Bruce
Reed
as the vice president’s chief of staff; Gene Sperling as economic adviser; Jack
Lew
as budget director, and the list goes on.

 

Damn Those Deficits

Reagan may have shown that
deficits don’t matter, as Dick Cheney supposedly said, but the media focus on
deficits as the litmus test for all serious politicians goes on. Reporters love
hearing Obama talk with a furrowed brow about the grave threat of a $14 trillion
pile of debt (even if that politician was responsible for stacking $3 trillion
of it).

If there was one unmistakable takeaway from the elections, it was
that independents were furious with Obama and Democrats for growing government too big, too fast.

“The American
people are absolutely concerned about spending and debt and deficits,” Obama
said at his press conference the day after the midterms. “We already had a big
deficit that I inherited, and that has been made worse because of the recession.
As we bring it down, I want to make sure that we’re not cutting into education
that is going to help define whether or not we can compete around the
world.”

John Boehner, likewise, won huge style points for his handling
of this, rhetorically speaking. The Ohio Republican, who is hardly a master of
the public stage, used every speech to talk about cutting spending and went out
of his way to sound and act humble (even as some Republicans were
second-guessing the size of those actual cuts). Mitch McConnell jumped into the act, easing his longtime
opposition to banning earmarks in the Senate.

Obama had little choice but
to steal their rhetoric — and that’s exactly what he did with the State
of the Union speech
, first by leaking word of a five-year spending freeze
(after a two-year spending spree) and then warning in his remarks, “Both parties
in Congress should know this: If a bill comes to my desk with earmarks in it, I
will veto it. I will veto it.”

Time will tell how serious Obama’s
rhetoric is. In one exception to his recent ride of positive coverage, the
Washington Post editorial page said Obama is not showing enough courage or
candor in tackling budget problems.

Wind Up the Wing
Nuts

Obama could have walked to the House floor and read his
birth certificate, and the State of the Union speech would still have been a big
media and PR success. Two people deserve credit: Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Sen. Mark
Udall
(D-Colo.).

Bachmann did Obama the biggest favor by announcing
that she would give her
own tea party response to the speech
. The media jumped on the divided GOP
story (since Boehner and GOP leaders were steamed at her decision), and the
night ended with Bachmann, not GOP leaders, dominating the message. (
Related: Bachmann’s GOP
critics are terrified of her following
)

And Udall gave him the
biggest insurance policy by leading the campaign for Republicans and Democrats to co-mingle in the audience. To a
casual viewer, it seemed like everyone was giving standing applause, even to
Obama’s most partisan remarks.

This is a preview of how easy it could be
for Obama to appear like a centrist for the remainder of the next two years.
With the Bachmann crowd on one side and angry liberals eager to raise money,
membership and their own profile on the other, Obama can plop in
between.

Every gesture, however empty, toward the center will draw a
frothing attack from different sets of liberal outlets. The most visible might
be the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has built a robust e-mail
list and fundraising model by pressuring Obama from the left.

The media
love stories about the internal wars in both parties. Obama, in his new
determination to hold the center, now loves them, too.

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