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04.19.09

Inside the Obama Family PR Machine

As the Obamas mastered the media again this week, thanks to the rollout of their dog, Richard Wolffe reveals how the president's instincts and the first lady's discipline—and staff—are creating an image juggernaut.

Of all the picture-perfect moments of the Obama White House, few compare to the young Obama family introducing their new dog Bo to the press. There were Malia and Sasha chatting about their new pet on the South Lawn. There was the first lady on her knees petting the new addition to the family. There was the commander in chief jogging in his suit alongside a Portuguese water dog.

“Puppy me!” urged Jon Stewart on Comedy Central’s Daily Show, as a respite to the president’s wonkish economic speech. Cue pictures of Obama running with his new dog, as Stewart applauded like a seal. “I really want to see the moment where he has to stop and pick up that dog’s shit. My guess is he will pull off even that in an elegant manner.”

Despite the iconic images that emanate from the White House each week, there is no Reaganesque Michael Deaver inside the West Wing.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the Obama White House is the most masterful image-making machine in politics since the Reagan era. And you’d be half right.

Despite the iconic images that emanate from the White House each week, there is no Reaganesque Michael Deaver inside the West Wing. While the president has two message guys in his inner circle—chief strategist David Axelrod and press secretary Robert Gibbs—neither of them are what you might call image-conscious, trading in words more than pictures. Their personal images underscore that point—Axelrod’s wardrobe in particular serving as a running joke inside the Obama campaign; he only started to wear a suit and tie on entering the White House.

Rather, the most memorable images are often the result of opportunism and the projection powers of one Barack Obama. And the place where image control is a more disciplined business is the East Wing, among Michelle Obama's staff.

The back story to Bo’s rollout is more revealing than you might expect, reflective of the ad-libbed nature of Obama’s image-making and the people who shape that image. Up until the moment of the press call, there was to be no first family in attendance. According to a senior White House aide, the initial plan was for just a staffer to walk “Bobama” in front of the cameras.

Even when the president and first lady decided to take the lead, there was no plan for their daughters to join them. Malia and Sasha wanted to take part themselves at the last minute. There were certainly no plans for the president to run with his dog across the South Lawn. It turns out that the memorable images came from the Obamas themselves, not their handlers.

Why the sensitivity and limited plans from the staff? One explanation lies in the painful experience of last July 4th, when the family sat down with NBC’s Access Hollywood for an interview. It was Malia’s 10th birthday and the family was feeling relaxed after a day of parades, hula-hoops and picnics in the small town of Butte, Montana. That was when the family let down their guard. The TV crew attached microphones to the Obama girls, saying innocently that they were just looking for some ambient sound like a laugh or sigh in response to their parents.

Instead, interviewer Maria Menounos turned the questions to the girls and they jumped right in, delivering enough exclusive material to spin the footage over several nights of TV.

As his daughters engaged in the unscripted interview, Obama shot several angry glares at his staffers off camera. He finally wrapped up the interview when Menounos began to push the girls to get a pet dog, offering herself as their dog trainer, and warning them about the difficulty of dealing with medical problems at the rear end of dogs. Obama asked the girls to leave before a subsequent magazine interview and made his displeasure known to his staff over the next several days.

The lessons of Access Hollywood were only half-digested. Inside the White House, Obama’s aides have taken a hard line against press questions about the girls’ friends, schedules, habits, and interests. As much as possible, the president wants to protect his children and their privacy from enormous worldwide attention.

Still, there is a gray area that remains unresolved. The family has posed for magazine photo shoots together and released official photos of the first day at school. Unscripted moments can take place—if and when the first family decides to break its own rules. And judging by the coverage, they can provide some of the most memorable images of this young presidency. The Obamas are still trying to find a comfort zone between total exclusion and limited access.

Their normal state of affairs is more, rather than less, restricted. Team Obama has never been afraid to confront and control the media. From day one of the presidential campaign in February 2007, it could command a large planeload of reporters and cameras. On that first weekend trip to Iowa, more than two years ago, Obama berated the press for focusing more on a photo of him in a black swimsuit than, say, his position on health care or the war in Iraq.

Such a focus on image is not surprising for a president whose bestselling books are a memoir and a personal prescription for what ails politics, and whose “No Drama” persona was perhaps best burnished during the campaign by his cool, casual poses on the covers of Rolling Stone and GQ. More eye-opening: The real discipline—and arguably the real success—lies in the East Wing, with the first lady’s staff. Day-to-day message control for the family lies with Michelle Obama’s press office, especially with communications director Camille Johnston, who used to work for Tipper Gore, and press secretary Katie McCormick Lelyveld, who performed the same job through the long campaign.

Sometimes Michelle Obama’s image-making is effortless. Her much-publicized clothes for her European tour were selected by her longtime stylist Ikram Goldman, who owns a boutique in Chicago.

Sometimes the image-making is an intensive effort. Michelle’s team expended enormous energy fending off hostile stories through the election. Some were factual, such as her comments about being proud of her country for the first time. Some were laughably false but still damaging, such as the unsubstantiated rumor that she had used the word “whitey.”

The results, whether intentional or accidental, are impressive. Michelle Obama has an approval rating that eclipses her popular husband. According to a recent Gallup poll, the first lady has a positive rating of 72 percent and a negative rating of just 17 percent. The president reaches 69 percent positives and 28 percent negatives.

Those numbers place her at Laura Bush levels of popularity just a few months into the White House. For someone whose frowning face used to accompany unflattering stories in conservative magazines, that is an image worth framing.

Richard Wolffe is an award-winning journalist, political analyst for MSNBC television, and senior strategist at Public Strategies. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine, traveling with the candidate and his inner circle from his announcement through election day, 21 months later. His book, Renegade: The Making of a President, will be published by Crown in June 2009. Before Newsweek, he was a senior journalist at the Financial Times.