How Obama plays media like a fiddle

How Obama
plays media like a fiddle

By: John F. Harris and Jim

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
, his political dexterity applauded by pundits, his status as
Washington’s dominant figure unchallenged even by Republicans.

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.

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
Here’s how Obama used the MSM to take a fast lane to the middle of
the road.

Bow to Bipartisanship

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

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

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

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

Let History Drive the

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

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

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.

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

Meanwhile, the post-midterm White House inner circle looks like a
recycling center for Clinton administration veterans
: Bill
as White House chief of staff; Bruce
as the vice president’s chief of staff; Gene Sperling as economic adviser; Jack
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

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

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

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

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.

Plugged one hole

Cartoon by Miguel Guanipa
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Obama: Civility for Thee but Not for Me Our Lecturer-in-Chief demands we do as he says, not as he does

Obama: Civility for Thee but Not for Me

May 7th, 2010

By Floyd and Mary Beth Brown, Western Journalist


Our Lecturer-in-Chief demands we do as he says, not as he does. During his University of Michigan commencement address, Barack Obama assumed the professorial role and began lecturing Americans on how to behave: “Now, the second way to keep our democracy healthy is to maintain a basic level of civility in our public debate. … But we can’t expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it.”

While the idea of a civil debate is certainly appealing, Barack Obama has done more to damage civility in public discourse than any presidency in 40 years. Obama is the first president since Richard Nixon to personally launch verbal assaults on his enemies. His administration is willing to attack anyone who dares to stand up against them. They employ the shockingly un-presidential strategy of going after their critics by name. Robert Gibbs, the president’s acid tongue spokesman, attacked CNBC reporter Rick Santelli after less than a month in office.

Obama then joins Gibbs by personally lashing out at critics. Obama is even willing to go after his allies that don’t fall in line. “Don’t think we’re not keeping score, brother,” Obama famously told Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon.

Obama has issued scores of scathing personal attacks. He attacked Mitch McConnell as being in bed with Wall Street. He claimed John Boehner was a healthcare Chicken Little. He said Sarah Palin is “not exactly an expert on nuclear issues,” and called Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh a “troublesome” twosome spreading “vitriol.”

Obama’s comedy also has a political bite to it. Rather than employing the strategy of most recent presidents of engaging in self-deprecating humor, Obama makes fun of others. He tells jokes mocking Sarah Palin, Scott Brown, John Boehner, Charlie Crist and Mitt Romney.

Landon Parvin, an author and speechwriter for Democrats and Republicans, and a joke writer for three Republican presidents (Reagan and both Bushes) says, “With these dinners you want the audience to like you more when you sit down than when you stood up. … Something in [Obama’s] humor didn’t do that.”

Even Nancy Pelosi has told Obama to cool his critiques of Washington, D.C. Pelosi and other Democrats in the House are concerned that he is throwing them under the bus to save his own reputation. Obama is more concerned about preserving his own image and re-election prospects than he is about supporting his party in 2010.

Even Obama’s most reliable allies, the formerly dominant mainstream media, are beginning to take notice. Josh Gerstein and Patrick Gavin of Politico report: “Reporters say the White House is thin-skinned, controlling, eager to go over their heads and stingy with even basic information.” When the friendly press takes notice, there must really be a big problem.

It’s easy for the president to lecture about the lack of civility in politics, but when his administration is one of the most vicious voices in modern history those lectures are hypocritical. If Obama really wants to raise the public discourse he ought to start the cleaning in his own White House.

“Behavior Placement”: Networks Officially Go To Work For Ministry Of Propaganda Spreading Obama Gospel Through Subliminal Messages

“Behavior Placement”: Networks Officially Go To Work For Ministry Of Propaganda Spreading Obama Gospel Through Subliminal Messages

April 18th, 2010 Posted By Pat Dollard.

Cass Sunstein, Communist Revolutionary Operative

“People do not want to be hit over the head with issues, but including aspects in the programming makes it resonate more successfully with viewers,” said Jeff Zucker, chief executive of NBC.

Times Online:

A TELEVISION star swigs her mineral water and throws the bottle into a recycling bin. In another scene, in the American version of The Office, the workers complain about metallic-tasting reusable water bottles and switch to filtered tap water instead.

They are among the television stars in shows from sitcoms to detective dramas who are lining up to bombard their fans with subliminal messages. “Behaviour placement” is aimed at persuading audiences to lead greener, healthier and happier lives.

The shows, including Law and Order and 30 Rock, a comedy starring Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey — the one throwing the water bottle — are first being broadcast in America but many will be aired in Britain in the next few weeks.

NBC, one of the big four American television networks, has even hired psychologists to drop environmentally friendly nods into the scripts.

The initiative reflects the “nudge effect” promoted by Richard Thaler, an economist, and Cass Sunstein, a lawyer who is advising President Obama on how to teach people to avoid bad decisions, from jumping red lights to eating junk food.

“People do not want to be hit over the head with issues, but including aspects in the programming makes it resonate more successfully with viewers,” said Jeff Zucker, chief executive of NBC.

Others disagree. The Week magazine, which covers American current affairs, describes such programmes as “cynical and manipulative”.

“The pressure to be eco-conscious is reaching a new high,” said Christopher Rosen, a writer. “NBC implies that people are too dumb to make healthy decisions on their own … television should stick with what works — product placement, where they awkwardly jam products into their programmes to make people want to buy them.”

Tim Kring, the creator of Heroes, the US science fiction series broadcast on BBC2, said he first became aware of behaviour placement when a lorry appeared in an episode picking up recyclable soft drinks bottles.

In America the scene prompted oil companies to pay for advertisements around the show in a bid to associate themselves with the green message.