So much for the media honeymoon. Obama's dustup with reporters Thursday night reveals he's got Bush's touch with the White House press corps. Plus, the four reporters who could give him fits.
President Obama may have started to reverse Bush's policies regarding the war on terror, but when it comes to his policy toward the media, the new president isn't just working from the same playbook, he's perfecting the moves.
On Thursday evening, Obama made an unannounced visit to the journalists' White House workspace, shaking hands and joking with the same locker-room bonhomie familiar to observers of George W. Bush. He snarked that the crowding and competition for space was "worse than the Middle East." He let them know he'd already gotten two workouts in. And then Jonathan Martin, a reporter from Politico, asked about the appointment of a former Raytheon lobbyist as deputy defense secretary.
Obama didn't give a substantive response, which is disappointing but hardly unusual or even especially indicative of a Bush-style attitude toward the press. But threatening to cut off access if reporters don't stick to softballs in social settings? That's what Bush wanted from the press—and it's what made bloggers and other media critics go into conniptions over schmoozefests like the Correspondents' Dinner. Obama sounded exactly like Bush, maybe even more forceful, when he made the threat explicit: "I came down here to visit. See this is what happens. I can't end up visiting with you guys and shaking hands if I'm going to get grilled every time I come down here."
My guess is that Obama did not make his appearance in the press area Thursday night to forge stronger, more personal relationships with the members of the White House press corps. He did it so that Jonathan Martin would look like an asshole.
I'm not sure what Obama expected from coming to visit the White House press corps besides getting "grilled," though perhaps the largely adoring coverage he got during the campaign confused him.
There's a place for noncombative small talk between politicians and the people who cover them. It's called "off the record." The practice of trading an on the record quote for a more relaxed interaction can be abused, but its great advantage is that everyone involved understands the ground rules. Some reporters may try to wring a response to a tough question out of it, but most reporters see it as a situation in which they can let their guard down, too, and perhaps make a more personal impression that will lead to more direct answers. Maybe even just returning a phone call.
But my guess is that Obama did not make his appearance in the press area Thursday night to forge stronger, more personal relationships with the members of the White House press corps. He did it so that Jonathan Martin, or whichever reporter dared to ask a question, would look like an asshole.
Right now the slot for this administration's David Gregory is wide open, and who you think might be best for job depends largely on whether you believe Gregory's approach was tough, news-oriented, and no-nonsense or showy, superficial, and self-indulgent. ABC's Jake Tapper—full disclosure, he's an old friend—gained no fans among the Obama staff, and plaudits from McCain aides, for his unrelenting coverage during the election. Chuck Todd, White House correspondent and political director for NBC, is a nontraditional fit for the role of television correspondent: kind of geeky and not overtly confrontational, but he does have a grasp of political minutiae that could prove deadly in a back-and-forth. The Chicago Sun-Times' Lynn Sweet is probably the only reporter in Washington who doesn't see Obama as anything special, having covered him for longer than any of them. But the person with the most potential to shake up Obama's team might be someone—like Martin—they haven't had to deal with before, someone with nothing to lose.
Journalists don't usually need that much help being confrontational, and, to be blunt, being assholes is kind of our job. But no president has started the job as well liked personally by voters as Obama is right now, and he has as much to gain by giving moderates and liberals—traditionally sympathetic to the media—a personal reason to dislike the press.