Meet the Press
Can Obama give the media more of what it wants by giving cable TV less?
After holding four press conferences on four consecutive business days, Barack Obama took today off. (On the fifth day, as it is written, he rested. …) For those of us who dissect his every word, a day without a press conference poses a challenge. The solution is to turn our attention from figuring out what it means when he does speak to figuring out what it means when he does not.
Since winning the election, Obama has sought the right balance between saying too much and too little. He's saying, "Help is coming, we're on our way." But since he can't actually do anything yet, he's quick to point out that "there is just one president at a time."
This is good training for the balancing act he'll face in office. He is the third president to govern during what I'll call the news hyper-cycle, which demands a presidential response to nearly every incremental development. The questions for Obama and his aides are two: How often does he respond to the demand? And can he do anything to lessen that demand?
Obama's predecessors took different approaches. Bill Clinton and his team wanted the president's positions conveyed in almost every news story. They turned the White House into a 24-hour newsroom and believed that a president's influence increases when he looks thoroughly involved. An administration must try to make news to keep the power of the bully pulpit alive. If it doesn't, it cedes ground to political opponents, members of Congress, and, most troubling of all, pundits.
George Bush took the opposite approach. He embraced a diminished public posture. He tried to stick to the message of the day, repeating familiar arguments and viewing sideline debates or events in the news as distractions. The administration consciously did not try to "play" in every story.
Clinton's approach could seem scattershot, and Bush's could seem out of touch. "The Clintons were like day traders," says former Bush counselor Dan Bartlett. "We were more like long-term investors. Neither worked perfectly. In our case it showed discipline, but we were sometimes too rigid and missed opportunities to get the president's message across because it wasn't blocked out on the calendar."
Which route will Obama choose? During the final days of the campaign, he threw out a tantalizing idea. Politicians should stay off of Fox, CNN, and MSNBC. "The job of an elected official—whether it's a president or a council member—is to solve problems, deliver for the people, don't spend all your time bickering, stay off the cable news shows," he said.
This will seem like a fabulous idea to anyone who has watched the daily bickerfests on cable news and felt the accompanying compression of their soul. Since cable news survives, in part, on the manufacture and distribution of phony developments, a wise president and his team will refrain from weighing in on fake issues, which can distract them from their true purpose and diminish their standing with the public. Why is he talking about this?
Cable bookers tend to like politicians who say outrageous things. Limiting cable appearances might allow the players involved to behave in a more civil fashion. It could also lower the blood pressure of viewers. Remove the overdramatization of debates on television, and maybe voters will be a little more patient. (Though, to be fair, many voters do seem pretty patient right now about what Obama can achieve.)