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09.18.09

The Inescapable President

The Inescapable President

Obama's weekend media blitz is a desperate act of overexposure-unless it's a brilliant strategy that helps secure health-care reform. Eric Dezenhall on the pros and cons of a political marathon.

If you don't want to watch President Obama make his big health-care pitch this weekend, tune into Fox because it might be the only place he won't turn up. Obama has committed to sit-downs with ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Univision news programs. Then, on Monday, he'll do Letterman.

Regardless of your media preferences, rest assured the commander-in-chief will find you because he is, by nearly all measurements, the most visible president in history.

The question is: From a communications perspective, is his forthcoming media blitz strategically smart?

Obama may only have one crack at getting health-care legislation passed, so why not try it while there's still a whiff of that new car smell? The bully pulpit is not capital to be borrowed against later; there may be no later.

The conventional wisdom is that Obama is overexposed, that people will tire of him if he keeps popping up everywhere. This notion shouldn't be embraced as public-relations gospel because there are new variables at work that weren't operating in prior presidencies. What follows is a tally of the communications upsides and downsides of the impending Obamapalooza:

The Upsides

1. The mainstream media like Obama. While the orgasmic convulsions of the past year have waned, I'd tell the president, "When you set aside the obligatory incantations of objectivity, you're their man." This means that Obama's interviewers will grant him on-camera deference and cover his pitch more favorably than if he were, say, anybody else. As the blueblood adman, Roger Sterling, admonished a colleague on this week's Mad Men, "Half the time this business comes down to 'I don't like that guy'." If the media like you, go with it.

2. Obama is good in TV interviews. The president usually comes across as earnest, measured and considerate of all viewpoints—even if he's really not. He's a hard man to dislike personally when he's in your televised presence. Always keep your client where he's strong and don't put him where he's weak.

3. Obama can control the message (for the most part). When you're the president in a one-on-one format, you can talk about whatever you want, no matter what you're asked. He may be challenged, but the pushback will be comparatively soft (remember, no Fox), and he can deftly navigate back to his "high concepts" of hope, change and community - themes no sane person can disagree with.

4. Attacking Obama and his policies is reliably refracted as racism. There is no greater advantage in warfare than having your enemies' weapons banned. While Obama never calls his critics racists, his team will exploit the organic reality that dissent will manifest in the press as right-wing dirty tricks and bigotry. Republicans will surely play right into this provocation by behaving as if they are, at best, insane and, at worst, scheming to put David Duke on the 2012 ticket.

5. Yesterday's overexposure is today's exposure. Pornographic self-promotion is now the coin of the realm because topics shift so fast that showoffs feel like they must dive in front of the camera before it switches to a rival exhibitionist. Obama may only have one crack at getting health-care legislation passed, so why not try it while there's still a whiff of that new car smell? The bully pulpit is not capital to be borrowed against later. There may be no later.

The Downsides

1. Obama revels in his exposure and people resent it. Americans love you if and when we feel that we're the ones who put you on top. When a public figure clings to the spotlight as if his presence is a party favor, we think of monarchy--which Americans love in the abstract, but abhor when our leader starts getting measured for crowns. The Camelot myth exploded into public consciousness after President Kennedy's horrifying murder. Before Dallas, the Kennedys had Hollywood star-power and New England pluck, not the Royal Standard flying in Hyannis Port.

2. Obama's camera-hogging is starting to look desperate. It's one thing to like the limelight; it's another to need it. There's a reason why Franklin D. Roosevelt's "fireside chats" were burned into the public's consciousness: He only did about 30 of them during his marathon 12-year presidency. Obama, by contrast, has racked up about 120 media interviews since he took office earlier this year. Kennedy and Reagan knew when to get off stage; Obama keeps fishing for encores.

3. Obama's omnipresence ignites hostilities in millions of Americans who oppose his policies and resent being written off as bigots and lunatics. His constant exposure doesn't broaden deliberation, it simply drives "debate" back to narrow "I hate people like you and you hate people like me" poles, which doesn't move the president any closer to reform.

4. The elusiveness at Obama's core, which once served him so well, has turned back on itself, arousing suspicions. During the past year, Americans' affection for Obama the symbol, the inability of his opponents to frame him in a definitively negative way, and revulsion over the Bush years, won him the White House. Now that we're talking about making real laws that impact real lives, rhetorical sandcastles about hope, change and other generic happy thoughts won't cut it. Charm may be persuasive in the courting process, but it's not a proxy for saying "I do."

Obama's media blitz is a calculated risk, not an intrinsically good or bad move. The president's supporters will be glad to see him this weekend, and are already dusting off Mount Rushmore. His detractors will spot socialism in his necktie. For those who just want to know where the president really stands, don't worry, he'll be right back. If health-care reform passes, Obamapalooza will be a stroke of genius. If it fails, it will be a blunder.

Eric Dezenhall co-founded the communications firm Dezenhall Resources, Ltd., and serves as its CEO. His first book, Nail 'em!: Confronting High-Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Business, pioneered techniques for understanding and defusing crises.