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The Message Is the Message

Photo-illustration by James Porto  

One of the most common complaints from Republicans these days, for instance, is that Obama generates too many messages per day, producing too many targets, so that they’re never able to lock in on one for long enough to bring it down. Even when his administration is preoccupied with passing a single bill, like the stimulus package or health-care reform, he’s still pushing several other policies at once. “It’s remarkably challenging to focus on a single issue or criticism of what the administration is doing,” says Representative Tom Price, head of the House Republican Study Committee, “because the president rapidly shifts to another major speech or agenda event before the consequences of the first are able to sink in with the American people.” Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to both Bush and John McCain, points out that the day after Obama signed his stimulus bill, he announced a mortgage-relief plan for homeowners, allowing almost no time for discussion of a bill that passed with just three Republican votes. In a much more admiring fashion, Stan Greenberg, the Democratic pollster, notes that Obama released a radio address on health care the same time he visited Normandy, just to keep the domestic ball rolling while he was on his foreign tour. “We didn’t even understand what he was doing at first,” says one White House reporter. “We’d all say, ‘Why is he stepping on his message?’ ”

In Reagan’s day, it would have been heresy to move so rapidly from one message to another. But in an infinite media marketplace, with micro news cycles and niche news outlets, no one story gains traction for very long, and there’s always room somewhere for one of your ideas. “Even when I was on the Kerry campaign in 2004,” says Burton, Obama’s deputy press secretary, “something that showed up on the front page of the New York Times would drive a lot of the news that day and a least a couple of broadcasts that night. And it’s rare that anything does that now.”

Burton is quick to add that the country is embroiled in so many crises right now that the president has little choice but to develop initiatives addressing each one of them, and then to discuss them. And that’s doubtless true. But the pacing and variety of the president’s engagements, combined with the sheer volume of his public appearances, suggests that something else is going on. These are the weapons of a blitzkrieg presidency, the likes of which we haven’t seen before.

Look at a typical 36 hours in the life of the White House this summer: On July 13, Obama made a Rose Garden speech announcing his nominee for surgeon general, Regina Benjamin, and along the way gave an update on health care. Both parts of his address got picked up by outlets big and small (Washington Post, page A3: “On Health-Care Reform, Obama Looks to the LBJ Model”). Then he met with labor and Jewish leaders, generating two completely different types of news stories for the wires, blogs, and specialty presses. He released a video for the White House website answering questions submitted by Africans via Twitter and text. He addressed an urban-affairs summit, calling for the reinvention of our cities. The following morning, Obama let cameras and reporters into the Oval Office after his meeting with the Dutch prime minister, answering one question about Afghanistan and one about unemployment. That afternoon, he flew to Michigan to give an address about the economy and job retraining. That evening, he gave a fourteen-minute interview to Bob Costas for the MLB network before throwing the ceremonial opening pitch of the All-Star Game in St. Louis. (“You gotta make sure they get the new MLB network in the White House,” said Costas. “If I have to, I can have the CIA tap into something,” reassured Obama.) At the bottom of the second inning, he chatted with Tim McCarver and Joe Buck on Fox. And during the game, he starred in a seven-minute video featuring all five living presidents to honor 30 Americans for their community service. Those same two evenings, Anderson Cooper happened to run a prerecorded interview with Obama, during which the president answered questions about the stimulus and gays in the military.

To sum up: a new surgeon general, health care, government reform in Africa, the Employee Free Choice Act, Israel, urban renewal, Afghanistan, the stimulus, job retraining, community service, gays in the military, baseball. All in less than 36 hours.

One disadvantage to the blitzkrieg approach is that positive news stories don’t have much of a shelf life. But neither do negative ones. As long as the president keeps generating new material, the bad news shuffles to the bottom. Danah Boyd, a social-media expert at Microsoft Research, notes that in this way, the president’s like any blogger or Internet content provider. She’s constantly asked the question: How do I maintain my reputation when this stupid thing I did/wrote/said keeps resurfacing online? “And the advice I give,” she says, “is to keep producing.”