WASHINGTON – A photo of the Obamas hugging that was released on Election Day 2012 has become the world’s most popular tweet on Twitter. A dressed-up version of Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech, packed with charts and graphs, is huge on YouTube. A playful picture of the president cavorting with a 3-year-old in a Spider-Man costume is a favorite online.
It’s all courtesy of the Obama image machine, serving up a stream of words, images and videos that invariably cast the president as commanding, compassionate and on the ball. In this world, Obama’s family is always photogenic, first dog Bo is always well-behaved and the vegetables in the South Lawn kitchen garden always seem succulent.
You’ll have to look elsewhere for bloopers, bobbles or contrary points of view.
Capitalizing on the possibilities of the digital age, the Obama White House is generating its own content like no president before, and refining its media strategies in the second term in hopes of telling a more compelling story than in the first.
At the same time, it is limiting press access in ways that past administrations wouldn’t have dared, and the president is answering to the public in more controlled settings than his predecessors.
Mike McCurry, who served as press secretary to President Bill Clinton, sees an inclination by the Obama White House to self-publish, coupled with tactics I never would have dreamed of in terms of restricting access for independent news organizations.
What gets lost are those revealing moments when the president’s held accountable by the representatives of the public who are there in the form of the media, McCurry says.
Still, the White House rejects the notion that it is turning to new media it can control at the expense of the old, instead describing an all-of-the-above strategy.
From press conferences to interviews with national, regional and constituency press, to new social media platforms, we have worked to both expand the scope of communication and also deepen the level of engagement between the American people and the work of the White House, says Jamie Smith, its deputy press secretary.
Statistics compiled by Martha Kumar, a political science professor at Towson University in Maryland who studies presidential communication, show how Obama’s strategy has differed from his predecessors’.
In his first term, Obama engaged in 107 short question-and-answer sessions with reporters during events in the Oval Office, the Cabinet Room and similar settings. President George W. Bush, by contrast, had 354.
By the same token, though, Obama did 674 interviews – TV, radio, Internet, print – compared with 217 for Bush and 191 for Clinton.
With interviews, the president has more power to choose his timing, questioners and format, in hopes of delivering a certain message in a setting that’s not always hard-hitting. But in impromptu Q-and-A’s, the questions fly about anything and everything from the national press corps – and these wide-open opportunities to challenge the president on the events of the day have become increasingly rare.
There’s no question that he’s opening and closing the door at his choice, says Gerald Shuster, a professor of political communication at the University of Pittsburgh. He’s controlling the flow as much as he can.
Obama’s strategy is part of a broader mass communications trend in which politicians, corporate leaders and others in public life are using digital tools to send their messages directly to the public without a media filter.
It’s all about control, says Eric Dezenhall, an image consultant who has worked for years with politicians, celebrities and business people.
Why put your CEO on 60 Minutes’ when he can record something that appears on the corporate website? That way he can’t be accused of not commenting but he doesn’t have to stand up to the withering scrutiny you might face in an investigative TV show.
Obama’s communications strategy works well for him, Dezenhall says, but sometimes at the expense of the rowdy, boisterous scrutiny that the free press is based on.