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.

Story via memeorandum.  Photo from Reuters Pictures.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. steve says:

    Assuming the press and pundits push him to defend his ideas, this is a net positive. If he is a true intellectual, he will want his ideas challenged and will incorporate other’s arguments.


  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Preparing the battlefield is always a good plan.

  3. JKB says:

    All well and good, I suppose but not when the excuse for blowing off the PM of Great Britain is that they are tired and overwhelmed. Also, not a good image since Obama is increasing being seen as fiddling while the stock market burns.

    Leadership is about prioritizing attention. What has the leader’s attention is what gets done.

    If he turns it around, this seeking out good opinion will be forgotten but if not…

  4. Triumph says:

    For good or ill (or perhaps both) Obama is an intellectual.

    This is an ill–intellectuals tend to be elite liberals who care more about arugula than America.

    This is why we need Joe the Plumber in charge. He isn’t hampered by all that fancy-pants book-learning that plagues Hussein.

  5. Wayne says:

    If Obama is talking to them in an academic sense, I’m o.k. with that. I suspect though that he is using flattery of a presidential visit and what not to get the writers on his side. It is hard to write something nasty about someone you like or owe a favor to. It has little to do with the merits of his arguments.