Can Obama give the press more of what it wants by giving cable TV less?

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Dec. 2 2008 7:35 PM

Meet the Press

Can Obama give the media more of what it wants by giving cable TV less?

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There's no evidence from Obama's aides that they're actually planning to stay off cable or that the president will ask his allies to abstain. There's probably no real way to enforce the rule. White House aides could limit their appearances, but there would still be people claiming to speak for the administration.  Plus, cable news does serve a valuable purpose: It delivers information first, at times brilliantly. A wise president and his team will know when to blanket the cable shows.

Obama's "stay off cable" pledge may have been one of those from the campaign that we're not supposed to hold him to. Regardless, it does raise a legitimate point: He faces enormous challenges in a news environment that is highly impatient.

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Obama has said he'll experiment like FDR. Unlike FDR, however, Obama must contend with dawn-to-dawn coverage. If Obama takes FDR-style risks and occasionally makes FDR-style mistakes, it will lead to sky-is-falling coverage. He's said he'll admit mistakes. FDR did, too, but wasn't so great at it. More than 60 years later, the news environment is even less friendly to that kind of candor.

The other approach is to saturate the airwaves with high-value content. That's what Obama has been doing with his multiple press conferences. He fills the vacuum, which means there is less room for idle speculation, uninformed theories, and opinions from political strategists you've never heard of. There is one major flaw to this strategy, of course: The president can't give a press conference every day. Nor will he always have big news to offer, as he has with his Cabinet appointments. If he can't block out a news conference with his own news, it leaves him open to questions about any old thing. That would be great—and also risky.

During the campaign, Obama was disciplined and focused. His team didn't whipsaw after every news development and kept the candidate sequestered from the press. It was the key to their success. Now he's set a record for accessibility. He's given press conferences and a string of high-profile interviews. (He'll be on Meet the Press this weekend.) He seems to know, and his aides confirm, that this level of accessibility creates a beneficial level of trust and transparency.

If Obama is going to speak more regularly to the press, experiment, and admit mistakes, maybe we owe him more than the usual hair-trigger response. So maybe he should get a do-over or some wiggle room for his answer in the last press conference when he suggested that a reporter who asked him to square his past criticisms of Hillary Clinton's foreign policy with his current praise for her as secretary of state was merely "having fun." To laugh off the question diminishes a candidate whose words people valued so highly. He also asked voters to view him as the kind of politician who didn't play the game of saying overheated things just for political effect. And to claim, as he did, that his criticisms of Clinton were uttered in the heat of the moment is also silly—unless he was talking about a several-months-long moment.

In the spirit of this new age, however, I am willing to give him a mulligan until his next press conference, when he'll have the chance to explain what he meant. If, in time, his promises of transparency and candor turn out to be phony, then the wiggle room should disappear. We can note his deficiencies as we did during the campaign, when he claimed to be campaigning on the high road, telling hard truths, keeping his pledges, and offering financial transparency.

For now, however, if he says something off-key, he should get a chance to clean it up. America may not be able to rid itself of the hyper-cable-news environment, but we can all try to be less hyper.