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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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.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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.)

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.

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.

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