Imagine if the Chilean mining disaster had happened here in the States. President Obama would have been hammered for 69 days for failing to rescue the men, right up to the moment the first one was pulled to safety.
That’s the sensibility inside the White House these days: If there’s a bad story out there, even one far removed from the presidential orbit, the Obama crowd will own it. Every administration feels besieged at times, pilloried by the press, misunderstood by the public. But conversations with White House officials suggest a team that feels almost snakebit during a midterm election that is likely to produce substantial losses.
"There’s an alternative story here that we’re trying to tell,” says Dan Pfeiffer, the communications director. "But there’s an element of spitting in the ocean."
During the long election slog, "a narrative takes hold, and trying to beat those narratives can be challenging and frustrating," he says. "Some of the news coverage is focused on more of the negatives and few of the positives. But I don’t think that’s surprising, given the environment."
Obama certainly bears responsibility for a wide range of missteps and a perverse talent for turning winning (on the Hill) into losing (in the court of public opinion). But what’s fascinating is the belief that the bully pulpit has been permanently downsized, forcing the leader of the free world to shout for attention in a cacophonous world.
It sounds absurd: Obama can instantly command attention any time he wants. He can pop onto the Today show, plop himself on Jay Leno’s couch, get himself on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, chat up the kids on MTV, diagram basketball brackets on ESPN. This week he’ll drop by The Daily Show and match wits with Jon Stewart. Everything he says is news.
But he has to compete with the din created by Gawker, Glenn Beck, baseball, Hardball, Oprah, Olbermann, O’Reilly, SNL, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
And so the White House has to plot strategy to break through the static, just like any group of image-makers hawking a product. The fact that the salesman-in-chief is a global celebrity remains a powerful weapon. But it’s also a double-edged sword—one that, as a top official put it, can wind up "embedded in your chest."
“There’s an alternative story here that we’re trying to tell,” says Dan Pfeiffer, the communications director. “But there’s an element of spitting in the ocean.”
Dana Perino, George W. Bush’s last press secretary, remembers the feeling. "Every White House feels under siege by the press at some point," she says. "There were certain story lines, like Katrina, we couldn’t break out of. You feel like you can’t catch a break. Sometimes it’s self-inflicted wounds, and other times news happens and you have to react to it."
James Carville, the Cajun strategist, describes the White House mood bluntly: "They’re frightened." Obama, he says, is "very insular" and "relies on a small group of people." Recalling the atmosphere in the Clinton White House before the Republicans took both houses in 1994, Carville says: "You know it’s going to be bad but there’s a piece of you that says it's not that bad, that there’s a new Newsweek poll out or something. You get beat down."
With Obama in the news virtually every day, it’s little wonder that every story—from stubbornly high joblessness to the Gulf oil spill to the stupid firing of an Agriculture staffer over a video snippet—attaches to him like a barnacle.
It’s entirely possible, of course, that media clutter has little to do with Obama’s mounting problems. Any president would be facing midterm losses in the wake of a job-destroying recession, and Ronald Reagan’s communications skills did him little good when the Democrats padded their House margins in 1982. Morning in America only works when there are rays of sunlight.
The White House message machine has also been rather clunky. Obama basically saved the auto industry, and the feds will likely turn a profit on the banking bailout that began at the end of the Bush era—but these points have all but vanished into the ether. And Obama might have found a way to publicize that he cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans in the much-derided stimulus bill—a fact that fewer than one in 10 people realizes, according to a CBS/New York Times poll. A conflict-hungry news business that rarely reflects on success is partially to blame, but that’s life in the big leagues. You go to war with the media you have.
Despite Obama's sky-high profile, White House advisers scoff at suggestions of overexposure, saying that shrinking viewership requires the president to make multiple appearances to reach the same audience that Reagan could with a single network interview. "Back in those days," says Pfeiffer, "television news and newspapers were viewed as much more credible by the public than they are now."
Pfeiffer admits to seeking a "buzz effect," saying that when Obama hopscotches from 6 0 Minutes to Nightline to The View, "politically involved people see him all the time. Most people don’t see him that much at all. They don’t watch Sunday shows or don’t watch cable news."
Then there’s the sheer velocity of the news cycle. Washington is crawling with reporters, pundits, and bloggers, but most of them aren’t poring over Fannie Mae mortgage records or Medicare audits. Almost everything is filtered through the prism of 1600 Pennsylvania. It’s easier, and cheaper, to have reporters yelling at the White House spokesman for answers, and the North Lawn provides a visual focal point for TV correspondents.
That’s why, when the bizarro Florida pastor Terry Jones was threatening to burn the Koran on Sept. 11, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked the president: "Is there anything you can say to him to convince him not to?" The first question at a Robert Gibbs briefing was: "Is there anything the White House is doing to discourage that or prevent them from going ahead with that?"
In such an environment, administration officials are acutely conscious of the fact that the Politico/Huffington Post/blog-industrial complex has a bottomless appetite and must constantly be fed. When they decided the White House would be bathed in pink light to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month, they parceled out the information like gold nuggets as the BlackBerry requests kept pouring in. But churning out items to satisfy voracious journalists isn’t the same as having a coherent election message.
Senior officials say they’ve had some success turning the election from a straight-up referendum on Obama to a choice between the incumbent party and what they portray as reckless Republicans. Yet the polls remain an obstacle in dealing with the Beltway scorekeepers. With Obama stuck in the 40s, the journalistic default setting is to portray him as a struggling leader, and that colors the coverage of everything he tries to do.
Obama and Joe Biden have labored mightily to convince Americans of what Pfeiffer calls the alternative story line: that they inherited an economic catastrophe, that the Republicans drove the car into the ditch and want the keys back, that no one could have eradicated these problems in less than two years. These may be valid arguments but they haven’t gotten much traction, which can’t be blamed on the proliferation of media outlets. And even if it could, a president who appeared on five Sunday shows in one morning doesn’t quite have the standing to make that case.
Still, White House officials recognize that the sprawling online culture is a potential blessing as well as a curse. As recently as the 2008 campaign, the fledgling Twitter wasn’t much of a factor. Now Gibbs regularly delivers his spin in 140 characters as @ PressSec.
Whatever the setbacks, Perino says it can be unfair to blame the press staff. "I remember being in a meeting where someone said, 'We have a communications problem with Iraq.' I said, ‘No, 89 soldiers were killed this month in Iraq. That’s your problem.'"
It’s equally true that 9.6 percent unemployment isn’t a communications problem. But deflecting the political blame certainly is. Perhaps this is the new normal—a president and White House staff having to work overtime to peddle their wares in a crowded marketplace.
"It’s a chaotic environment," Pfeiffer says. "There are no clean shots anymore. Everything we do is instantly analyzed by people who are our allies and people who are our adversaries."
Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program "Reliable Sources," Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.