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The Message Is the Message

Barack Obama’s ubiquitous appearances as professor-in-chief, preacher-in-chief, father-in-chief, may turn out to be the most salient feature of his presidency.

Photo-illustration by James Porto  

Since occupying the White House, Barack Obama has hosted fifteen town-hall meetings; appeared in more than 800 images on the White House Flickr photo-stream; and held four prime-time press conferences, the same number held by George W. Bush in his entire presidency. He’s sent a video message to the people of Iran. He’s given an address in Cairo that was translated into fourteen languages. He’s sat on Jay Leno’s couch, where he riffed about the supreme strangeness of having his own motorcade (“You know, we’ve got the ambulance and then the caboose and then the dogsled”), and he’s walked Brian Williams through the White House, where he introduced the anchor to Bo the dog. Two weeks ago, when he made a controversial comment at a press conference (that the Cambridge police had “acted stupidly” toward Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.), he followed up with yet another press appearance in the White House briefing room—and an exclusive interview on Nightline. And that was before he sat down for a well-publicized beer with Gates and the offending officer …

Such are the president’s media habits. It’s gotten to the point where one expects to see and hear from him every day. He’s in the information business almost as much as the policy business. “This is president as content provider,” says Ed Gillespie, the former Republican National Committee chairman and adviser to George W. Bush. “It’s like when Rosie O’Donnell had a show and a magazine and a blog.”

The president has taken a fair amount of heat for this full-saturation approach. Friends and critics alike have complained it cheapens his words, erodes his mystique, and, worst of all, smacks of desperation. “You don’t have to be on television every minute of every day,” cracked Bill Maher recently. “You’re the president, not a rerun of Law & Order.” Yet it’s also clear that the public has a near-insatiable appetite for Obama-related content, from the trivial to the serious. Dreams From My Father is now in its 156th week on the New York Times’ best-seller list. Bill Burton, a White House deputy press secretary, tells me that he fields almost as many phone calls from the celebrity press as from the Washington Post, as if the president were George Clooney. “And they call about things that might surprise you,” he adds. “Like when Tom Daschle withdrew his nomination.” (You know your president’s a headliner when E! is interested in cabinet resignations.)

With unemployment at 9.5 percent and the most ambitious public-policy initiative to sell since the creation of Medicare, it’s a decided plus for Obama to be lumped into the same category as a box-office star. Indeed, the president’s personal popularity, still hovering at 58 percent, may be one of the few weapons he has left. As Republicans are fond of noting (usually with some frustration), so long as the public still likes him personally, it’ll remain open to his agenda—at least in theory. “If you poll a question about a policy in an anodyne, sterile way, you’ll often find that Barack Obama’s positions are inversely proportional to his popularity,” notes Gillespie. “But if you say it’s President Obama’s policy, it pulls the numbers right back up.”

The White House is exquisitely aware of this advantage. Three years ago, Rahm Emanuel, then a congressman and now Obama’s chief of staff, shrewdly remarked to me that the then-senator was as much “a cultural phenomenon as a political phenomenon.” Last month, when I ran into Emanuel in the West Wing reception area, I asked him how being a cultural phenomenon compared to being a guy voters want to have a beer with. He thought for a moment. “There’s a brand to it,” he said, before vanishing into a meeting.

As public support for health-care reform erodes—polls show it’s now below the 50 percent mark—it’s no accident that the White House is making the most of brand Obama. Health-care reform is the main tent-pole in the president’s domestic agenda, the piece of legislation in which Obama has the highest stake. And so he sits for an interview on the Today show with Meredith Vieira. He holds a conference call with progressive bloggers. He courts regional media, convenes town-hall meetings, and holds assorted press conferences, including one in prime time.

It’s a large helping of Obama, surely. But those who think the White House has overdone it are missing the point. In today’s media environment, ubiquity is not the same as overexposure. It’s a deliberate strategy. And it’s critical to any understanding of the Obama presidency.

It’s almost cliché by now to say that Barack Obama is a new-media president. But it’s not his nimble use of Facebook and Twitter that makes him so. It’s the fact that he’s the first president who has grasped the possibilities of today’s high-velocity, high-density, highly variegated media landscape. With the exception of George W. Bush, all of Obama’s predecessors had a limited number of news outlets in which to make their cases, limited space in which to do it, and a time-bound moment to make their mark—if voters didn’t catch their press conferences or read the morning paper, they were pretty much out of luck. Now, as all of us are aware, the web provides infinite space for both its own native forms (blogs, news aggregators, original YouTube posts) and old media (newspapers, TV clips), making it possible for us to watch a speech or read a story whenever we want, unconstrained by space and time. The resulting landscape is vast, diffuse, and multiplatform. And Obama is a multiplatform natural: He’s done books and audiobooks; he commands audiences on both YouTube and from the podium; he BlackBerrys; he makes a nice photo. He recognizes that, in the same way a blog can’t survive on just one post a day, a presidency can no longer survive on one message per day or one press conference per year. Instead, you have to turn on a fire hose.