WASHINGTON — In the days after an oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, the White House faced not only a looming environmental catastrophe, but also a potential public relations disaster.
Aides feared that a story line would take hold that President Barack Obama had responded too slowly to the spreading oil slick, which could damage him politically much as the slow federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 discredited former President George W. Bush.
So as the federal government began reacting to the spreading oil, the White House message machine swung into action, too.
Within hours, it was cranking out a sustained barrage across the broad spectrum of modern media — statements, reports, e-mails, tweets, photos and videos — all punctuated by a high-profile presidential visit to the Gulf followed by an incendiary speech at the White House and a video recap with exclusive behind-the-scenes views of Obama in “West Wing Week,” the White House’s new online program at www.whitehouse.gov.
Whether it’s Obama sitting with one reporter or a statement sent via Twitter, nothing happens by accident. The White House message machinery is a crucial element of the ever-expanding presidency, and like his recent predecessors, Obama uses it to shape public opinion, drive the mainstream media’s agenda and minimize political blowback.
The White House bureaucracy devoted to managing public imagery has been growing since President Richard Nixon created the first office devoted to broad communications strategy in 1969. Obama’s version uses a blend of old and new techniques and technology in an effort to cut through a polarized partisan landscape and a dizzying array of modern mass media that abbreviate attention spans and fracture public attention.
Obama’s White House message machine employs 69 people who are directly involved in some part of the communications effort, at a cost to taxpayers of at least $4.3 million a year. That’s an increase from 47 in Bill Clinton’s White House and 52 in George W. Bush’s.
Those totals don’t include communications staffs at the National Security Council or in Vice President Joseph Biden’s offices, or support staff who are paid out of different accounts.
They also don’t include hundreds of political appointees scattered across cabinet departments and agencies who were hired with approval from the Obama White House and who work with the White House to present a coordinated message, as they did under previous presidents.
In all, about 350 people worked on the president’s message in the Bush administration — the most recent tally available — according to Martha Joynt Kumar, an expert on the White House communications machinery and a professor at Towson State University in Maryland. There’s no reason to think fewer work on Obama’s.
“It’s an enormous operation,” said Bradley Patterson, a veteran of the Eisenhower White House who’s chronicled the growth of White House operations.
The president himself relies heavily on the traditional paths to America’s hearts and minds, from a televised Rose Garden statement Friday voicing anger over the oil spill to his frequent gifts of exclusive interviews to favored TV and newspaper journalists from elite news organizations.
At the same time, he’s limited his exposure to questions in other formats — especially traditional press conferences — as his White House relentlessly uses the new media to supplement its selective manipulation of the old.
The reason for all this media manipulation is simple: Like his recent predecessors, Obama’s found that he no longer can dominate the public debate with what Theodore Roosevelt called “the bully pulpit” alone. Rather, he’s confronted by an ever-growing array of competing voices in a 24/7 barrage of constant media.
To break through, he’s assembled a vast team to promote his agenda, whether it’s selling a policy such as his health care overhaul, providing information about government programs such as the H1N1 vaccine, or simply making the president look good — or less bad than others might.
“Because we are in such a hyper-partisan, polarized media environment, a lot of what we do is correcting misinformation. That’s part of implementing his agenda,” said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director.
As it became clear that oil was gushing from the Gulf floor, top White House aides scrambled to ensure that Obama didn’t look bad in a developing story that they thought was flat wrong.
“All of a sudden one morning, the White House press corps woke up and thought we hadn’t been doing anything for eight days because they weren’t paying any attention to it,” said Pfeiffer. “So we almost had to bludgeon the press into understanding what had been going on all along. So we were very aggressive about that.”
So on April 29, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs rolled out Obama and a gusher of cabinet officers to tell the media about all the things the federal government was doing. Created by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939, the office of press secretary is the visible information frontline for every president.
That day, Gibbs sent his first oil leak message via Twitter, announcing that Obama had received a 20-minute briefing on the spill.
Others would follow.
“Our comprehensive look inside the aggressive response,” boasted one from Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton on May 5, with a link to an 11,500-word report from the White House detailing an “around the clock” response from the government. It included 73 mentions of the president.
“A busy day here, but the president has not taken his eyes off the BP spill,” said another White House tweet on May 10, with White House photos of Obama meeting with top aides in the Situation Room.
Twitter is just one of the new media tools that White House officials use to deliver their message. It allows them to reach voters directly without filtering or commentary from the mainstream media. Gibbs alone reaches 60,000 people on Twitter; the White House Twitter messages reach 1.8 million.
An hour after his first oil leak tweet, Gibbs used Twitter again to send a picture of Obama getting briefed, driving the image of a personally engaged president. The shot was taken by official White House Photographer Pete Souza, whose office sends out a steady stream of flattering, behind-the-scenes shots of the president to the public, distributed via Flickr and posted on whitehouse.gov.
Souza and his colleagues, who include former McClatchy-Tribune photographer Chuck Kennedy, are respected former journalists, but their work can be controversial when the White House uses it to replace independent journalism.
When the White House released a Souza photo this year of Obama apparently editing a speech text, for example, one online article gushed that the edit marks revealed Obama’s intellect and talent. Yet there was no independent journalist present to verify that the photo hadn’t been altered or staged.
The White House shut out photojournalists, and instead sent out Souza’s photos when Obama signed an executive order on abortion this year and again when he restaged his inaugural swearing-in with Chief Justice John Roberts last year.
“Pete Souza is a fantastic photographer, but he works for the White House,” said Ed Henry, a CNN reporter and the secretary of the White House Correspondents Association. “A photographer on the White House payroll is going to release one photo out of the hundreds he takes. It’s going to be the one that casts the president in the best possible light.”
There’s no evidence that these White House photos left anything out, but photos the White House selects are chosen to project its message, and sometimes that can shield a larger truth.
After President Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981, for example, the White House released a photo of a hospitalized Reagan, wearing a bathrobe and standing with his wife Nancy. It did not, however, show the IV tubes running from Reagan to a stand at his side. The White House cropped them out to project the image it wanted — one that misled the public about the president’s strength.
From the time the Obama White House decided to launch its coordinated push on the oil spill, it bombarded the media with e-mail reports on the federal response, emphasizing words such as “aggressive” and “immediate.”
“Administration-wide response,” said one e-mail on May 1, introducing a phrase that would be used repeatedly.
“President Obama visited the Gulf Coast to inspect response operations firsthand, underscoring the administration’s all-hands-on-deck response,” said another on May 2.
The White House also produces its own video. Obama’s trip to the Gulf Coast on May 2 was covered not only by the news media, but also by a White House video team.
By May 4, whitehouse.gov had posted a video recap of the visit. By May 6, it had showcased a new version on its West Wing Week webcast, “Your guide to everything that’s happening at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”
The program, which runs about six minutes each week, is a flashy recap of the president’s week with behind-the-scenes footage that shows Obama in a favorable light — leading a meeting, announcing good news, laughing with world leaders.
The May 6 program was a day-by-day look at an Obama deeply involved in the oil spill response, even as he headed out to dinner. As it said:
Friday: He announces economic growth. “But first, he took time to update the American people about efforts to contain the oil spill.”
Saturday: “Even as preparations were being made for the president’s visit to the Gulf coast, he made time to go to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.”
Sunday: Videos of Obama visiting the Gulf. “The federal government has launched and coordinated an all-hands-on-deck, relentless response to this crisis from day one,” he said.
Monday: Video of Obama and Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen working the phones from the Oval Office.
Like other White House videos, such as one of a White House staff interview of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, the West Wing Week program offers a one-sided view that’s stylized to appeal to consumers of modern media.
“It’s packaged like a hybrid between a week in review program and a documentary version of the old entertainment series, West Wing,” said Gerald Jordan, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Arkansas. “Ultimately, there will be an audience that is so accustomed to fragmented media . . . that they might meet at some point.”
THE LEADING MAN
The highest-profile White House messenger is the president himself, and as the oil spill grew, so did Obama’s public role, from the May 2 visit to the Gulf to a May 14 appearance in the Rose Garden.
Obama plays his role as public messenger much as his most recent predecessors did. In his first 15 months, he gave 620 speeches, very similar to the 15-month totals for George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, according to Kumar.
For all the outreach via Twitter and other new media, Obama himself prefers the old media, which still aggregate the largest audiences. He uses the old mainstream media very differently, however.
He takes fewer questions from a variety of reporters in open sessions and gives many more one-on-one interviews, particularly to The New York Times, which the White House uses to deliver its message to the nation’s political, cultural and economic elite, starting with network and cable television news producers.
In 15 months, Obama took questions in formal news conferences or short sessions 83 times. Bush did it 205 times; Clinton 367 times.
Obama gave far more interviews, however — 184 in his first 15 months compared to 56 for Bush and 61 for Clinton. Of his interviews, 108 went to TV, 52 to newspapers and magazines, 11 to radio, 11 to mixed media, and only 2 to online organizations.
“The reason he does interviews is he likes to explain things like a professor, with all the buts and wherefores. He doesn’t like short q-and-a’s,” said Kumar.
“The ideal interview is a cross-platform,” she said, meaning talking to someone who can deliver Obama’s message both on TV or online to “get into the bloodstream fast,” and then reinforce his message with an article in a prestigious newspaper or magazine.
Thus, she noted, Obama’s given multiple interviews to John Harwood of CNBC-TV and The New York Times, the favored White House outlet that got 20 percent of all Obama’s on the record print interviews in 2009. An official White House photo displayed on a West Wing wall shows Harwood about to exchange high fives with Obama during one of their interviews.
THE STAGE MANAGERS
Others help drive the message, too, notably Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and senior adviser David Axelrod, a former political reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Both grant frequent interviews — or rushed phone calls — to favored reporters, although they often speak as unnamed “senior White House officials” or “people knowledgeable about the president’s thinking.”
In addition to daily meetings at the White House, the senior staff meets at 7:30 am, the press staff at 9:15 am, the communications staff at 9:30 am and then the senior staff again at around 6 pm, and Axelrod hosts a weekly meeting at his home that includes working on communications strategy over Thai or other takeout food.
Among those who attend are staffers from the Democratic National Committee, which does polling and research to help the White House target its message.
“We’ll sort of explore how we say things, and how people are interpreting what’s happening in the world,” Pfeiffer said.
Finally, Pfeiffer or his aides also hold a daily teleconference with top communications people in the executive branch agencies and departments to coordinate the message. “We keep in pretty close contact,” Pfeiffer said.
Does it all work?
The oil spill is a developing story; it could grow worse for Obama if it grows worse in the Gulf, but Pfeiffer said the White House is satisfied so far.
“We were successful at getting a pretty high percentage of the coverage accurately depicting the steps the administration had taken . . . . It was not clear that was going to happen (several) days ago.”
A non-partisan poll found a more mixed initial verdict, with Obama emerging from the first few weeks with some public disapproval, but not as much as Bush got after Katrina.
The Associated Press-GfK poll found that 42 percent of Americans approved of Obama’s handling of the oil spill, 33 percent disapproved and 21 percent were neutral. By comparison, 35 percent approved of Bush’s handling of Katrina in an AP-Ipsos poll weeks after the hurricane, 42 percent disapproved and 25 percent had no opinion.