Obama ‘Working the Refs’
Barack Obama is taking great pains to reach out to opinion journalists, Michael Calderone reports for The Politico, and it’s paying off. After some anecdotes about Obama personally calling pundits who wrote negative things with respectful explanations of why they were wrong, Calderone observes,
The communications team for President George W. Bush would have been much more likely to let the initial response stand and then blast the Times after publication — all the better for fanning the passions of a political base deeply distrustful of the mainstream media.
Andrew Rosenthal, The Times’ editorial page director, says the Obama White House has been more “proactive” than the Bush White House was, offering up policy thinkers to more fully explain the administration’s positions — both before and after columns and editorials run. “I’ve had more unsolicited offers for participation from the Obama people in 45 days than in the last eight years from Bush,” said Rosenthal.
Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt said in an e-mail that the Obama team has been “open and responsive” to requests from The Post’s editorial writers. Hiatt said that helps The Post “produce smarter and more knowledgeable editorials.”“My general view is, the more exchange of views, the better,” Hiatt added. “I welcome any outreach from the White House to my columnists or editorial board.”
One could quibble about whether this is a good use of a president’s time but it’s a perfectly reasonable aim. Why not try to influence the influencers?
There’s a downside to all the media-courting, a risk that the new administration will seem preoccupied with the chattering classes from Georgetown and the Upper West Side and therefore out of touch with flyover country.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs is sensitive to that perception. As The New York Times Magazine reported just weeks after the election, the Obama campaign “bragged that [Obama] never even visited with the editorial board of The Washington Post.” And Gibbs talked about how “you could go to Cedar Rapids and Waterloo and understand that people aren’t reading The Washington Post.”
But the White House knows that what gets written in Washington and New York filters out into the country — and that it needs support from those who are most likely to get their news from the inside-the-Beltway press, members of Congress, policy wonks and, of course, other journalists.
This strikes me as a silly objection, indeed. Talking to the pundits doesn’t preclude crafting a message aimed at the heartland. For that matter, a not insignificant number of people live in the Boston-New York-Washington corridor, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
And I think this is right, too:
Part of the reason for [a more aggressive outreach effort than displayed by the Bush team], says Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, is that, like former President Bill Clinton, Obama “likes this sort of thing — the exchange with pundits.”
For good or ill (or perhaps both) Obama is an intellectual. It’s not surprising that he cares what opinion leaders think and write.