The Message Is the Message

Photo-illustration by James PortoPhoto: From left to right: Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP; Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP; Kristoffer Tripplaar/Sipa Press; Lawrence Jackson/Landov; Joshua Roberts/UPI/Landov; Courtesy of the White House; Lauren Victoria Burke/Courtesy of ABC News

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.

Photo-illustration by James PortoPhoto: Jewel Samada/AFP/Getty Images (Obama). Location courtesy of Best Buy, Long Island City, Queens, N.Y.

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.”

Photo-illustration by James PortoPhoto: William Geddes/Beateworks/Corbis (staircase); Official White House photographs by Pete Souza

Despite his agility in skipping from topic to topic, the president is clearly most comfortable when he can drill deep into one. During the presidential campaign, when Reverend Wright’s antics threatened to steer Obama clear off the rails, his advisers had varying ideas about how to handle the situation. Ultimately, though, it was Obama who decided on the solution: He’d give a 37-minute speech about race.

In the days when just a handful of media outlets drove the news, such a move would have been politically contraindicated, if not outright suicidal. The speech contained no pithy or rhyming sound bites (“Mend it, don’t end it,” “Read my lips”). It practically defied quoting. It demanded, rather, to be heard or read in its entirety. Yet within 48 hours, more than 1.6 million viewers tuned in, making it the single-most-watched video on YouTube for that period.

There’s a reason for this. Sound bites, says Clay Shirky, the NYU new-media philosopher and recent author of Here Comes Everybody, were a product of media scarcity, when public figures had a finite amount of time and space to make their points. Now we live in a world of “Publish, then filter,” he points out, rather than “Filter, then publish,” a time when the question is “Why not film this?” rather than “Why film this?” This makes Obama our first post-sound-bite president. If he wants to give a 37-minute speech about race, he can give a 37-minute speech about race, knowing that millions of Americans (now more than 6 million) will eventually hear it, even if they fail to catch it in real time. Not only is ubiquity strategy in a world of unlimited content, volume is too.

Reviving the long-form address may seem strange in an era when the 140-character tweet and two-sentence blog post form a major part of our communications repertoire. But Nate Silver, the founder of, points out that the long form may, in fact, be a natural part of it. “If you speak and leave out details,” he notes, “bloggers will fill them in.” And for those who despair at the telegraphic nature of Twitter and blog posts, Obama’s long speeches—like long books and long movies—are a canny form of counterprogramming.

During his presidency, Obama has repeatedly chosen a long speech over staccato remarks or scattered statements by surrogates. When the Senate refused to include funding in an appropriations bill to shut down Guantánamo Bay, he spoke for over 50 minutes at the National Archives about civil liberties. When he made overtures to the Arab world in Cairo, he spoke for 55 minutes. When congressional Republicans first began to mount their resistance to his health-care bill, he flew to Green Bay, Wisconsin, and conducted a 62-minute town hall. Laurence Tribe, Obama’s onetime mentor at Harvard Law School, says that the president’s speeches remind him of “carefully worded judicial opinions—he avoids overreaching, he carefully states opposing arguments and considerations. He gently leads the viewers or readers or listeners to their own conclusions rather than ramming one down their throats.” Lincoln used to do this in his debates with Douglas, which raises a tantalizing possibility about the future: Perhaps the post-sound-bite age will seem more like the pre-sound-bite age, when most politicians could hold their own in a debate.

Obama’s civil-liberties speech at the National Archives is a good example of what Tribe was talking about. Obama opened by summing up the two opposing positions: “I know some have argued that brutal methods like waterboarding were necessary to keep us safe,” he said. “I categorically reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation … ” As he went on to make his case, he recruited the words and deeds of his adversaries, rather than inflaming partisan tensions, noting that McCain had campaigned against torture and that Bush had released the bulk of the Guantánamo detainees. He co-opted a favorite argument of his adversaries, too, remarking that Guantánamo had become an exemplar of inefficient government. “We’re cleaning up something that is—quite simply—a mess,” he said. As he was winding down, he anticipated the political repercussions of closing Guantánamo, hoping to defang critics before they could bare their teeth: “You can almost picture the direct-mail pieces … designed to frighten the population. I get it.”

George Lakoff, the Berkeley linguist and author of the The Political Mind, has pointed out that Barack Obama is one of the few Democratic politicians who naturally uses “deep framing,” or an implicit moral architecture and worldview to change how the nation sees larger issues. (Bill Clinton, by contrast, triangulated so frequently that he left his party without a coherent vision. “Instead,” says Lakoff, “he found lots of small things they couldn’t disagree with.”) One can certainly give a short speech with a deep frame. But the longer Obama’s speeches run, the more opportunity he has to establish and reestablish an underlying worldview—almost without our noticing. For Democrats, who’ve ceded the language of values to Republicans for the better part of a quarter-century, repeated modeling of such a tactic is quite useful.

“Time and again, our values have been our best national-security asset,” Obama said in the first five minutes of his appearance at the National Archives. “It is the reason why enemy soldiers have surrendered to us in battle, knowing they’d receive better treatment from America’s armed forces than from their own government.” By the time he’d finished speaking, he’d used the word moral twice, principle ten times, and value fifteen. “We must leave these [torture] methods where they belong—in the past,” he said. “They are not who we are. And they are not America.”

A temperate July afternoon, with a slightly more intemperate press corps. Chip Reid, the White House correspondent for CBS News, is quizzing Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, about a health-care event the administration has arranged in Virginia. Why, he wants to know, is the administration calling this event a “town hall” when it has hand-picked all of the participants and questions? At first the exchange looks as if it’ll last only a few seconds. Then Helen Thomas, the woman with the single-longest institutional memory in the press corps, joins in.

THOMAS: It’s a pattern.
GIBBS: What’s a pattern?
THOMAS: It’s a pattern of controlling the press.

Though the president may be liberal with his media appearances, his relationship with the traditional White House press corps is complicated. The Obama administration runs a very disciplined press operation. Its aides almost never leak, unless it’s deliberate. It’s highly selective about access (during the transition, the New York Times White House team didn’t get the usual sit-down interview). It makes generous use of polls (every Wednesday night, a group meets for dinner at the home of David Axelrod, Obama’s top adviser, to discuss politics and message). Not once has Obama shown himself to be psychologically beholden to the White House press corps. If anything, it’s the other way around, a favorite Obama punch line: “A few nights ago, I was up tossing and turning trying to figure out exactly what to say,” he recently said at a dinner for television and radio correspondents. “Finally, when I couldn’t get back to sleep, I rolled over and asked Brian Williams what he thought.”

In Reagan’s day, it would have been heresy to move so rapidly. “We didn’t even understand what he was doing at first. Why is he stepping on his message?”

Obama, in fact, lives in a moment when he can finally do what his modern predecessors only dreamed of: go directly over the heads of the mainstream press. The White House Flickr stream is a good example. Since the beginning of his presidency, the Obama press office has uploaded 983 pictures onto the site. Each is as perfectly composed as an old cover of Life magazine, and each competes with, if not trumps, a photograph taken during a routine photo op, which probably explains why the administration denied outside photographers access to the Oval Office on the president’s first day in office and released its own pictures instead. Why leave such an important image to chance if it’s something you can control? (Brad and Angelina, incidentally, did the same thing when their first child was born, knowing that their own polished photos of Shiloh would preempt a paparazzi shot.) The White House’s “prepackaged” events, as Helen Thomas calls them, are another case in point. Every modern administration has attempted its own version of those health-care town halls. But if the mainstream press refused to cover them, the events were of little value. Not so in the age of YouTube.

Thomas and Reid were right about the health-care event. It was designed to control the press. Had it been the only event Obama participated in, it would have been appalling. But Obama knows full well that a dinky town hall on YouTube doesn’t get nearly as many viewers as a town hall on prime-time. So he does both. Just the week before that Virginia event, Obama did a health-care town hall on ABC. The day before the ABC event, he gave a six-minute response to a health-care question … from the White House press corps, at a routine press conference. Obama, in fact, has by this point given more interviews than any modern president.

The president has also made a point of courting certain influential members of the old media: He talked to David Leonhardt of the New York Times for a long magazine piece about the economy; he dined with conservative columnists (George Will, David Brooks, Bill Kristol) and had a morning meeting with those closer to his own political kind (Maureen Dowd, E. J. Dionne Jr., Rachel Maddow). And his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, has spent a lot of time keeping the traditional press corps happy. If you scan the morning papers, you’ll find he’s managed to give most prominent White House reporters some on-the-record quote about whatever they were writing, suggesting he’s said even more off the record. He gossips with them, sees them occasionally for off-the-record dinners. (He’s the type old-school reporters fetishize: loquacious, intense, so profane he’d embarrass a toilet.) Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post media critic, remarked in a recent story that “perhaps no White House chief of staff in modern history has worked the media as aggressively and relentlessly as Emanuel.” For people in a dying industry, so much attention from a president’s chief of staff is very flattering.

“The truth is, it doesn’t take much,” says Lou Cannon, the former Washington Post reporter and one of Reagan’s ablest biographers. “If the president’s a gentleman and his chief of staff returns your calls … ” he trails off. Reagan was such a man, and Jim Baker returned those calls, same as Obama and Emanuel now. “It goes a long way,” he finally says. “We’re like schoolgirls.”

Almost all presidents wake up one morning to discover that their greatest strength has become their greatest liability. Think of Reagan’s sunniness, which eventually became a signifier of his vacuity, or Clinton’s charisma, which at his weakest moment led to an act of seduction that led to his impeachment. In the case of Barack Obama, it’s his passion for oratory that leaves him most vulnerable to future criticism. If he manages to genuinely revive the economy or pass a decent health-care bill, great—the public will be thrilled to hear from him for a long time to come. But if he doesn’t, one could imagine people eventually souring on his many public appearances: Dear God, not another speech.

Obama, painfully aware of this hazard, is trying hard to make sure he matches rhetoric with action. Knowing that none of his agenda, health care especially, will pass without significant involvement from the players on the Hill, he’s filled the White House with former congressional staffers and ceded much of the bill-writing power to Congress itself. He’s also made Emanuel, a man metabolically incapable of sitting still (one of his favorite expressions is “putting points on the board”), one of the most powerful White House chiefs of staff in modern history.

It may well be enough. But the odds are still long. Which means it’s worth asking: What will we be left with if the president can’t meet his ambitious policy goals?

We’ll be left with Obama’s messages themselves. They’re no substitute for universal health care, obviously, or a robust economy. But perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Obama’s presidency is that he’s trying to change our minds as much as our policies. He’s trying to change our conception of both ourselves and our country, as well as the way outsiders perceive us. He’s trying nothing less than to realign American values.

As a former law professor, Obama sees the presidency as a classroom. (Which is why he didn’t apologize for weighing in on the arrest of Professor Gates a couple of weeks ago, explaining it could be “a teachable moment.”) Since his community-organizing days, he’s recognized the value of an informed citizenry. In a way, those meetings he held on Chicago’s South Side all those years ago were just proto-versions of his seminar-style town halls today. “With Clinton, we’d have town meetings too, but it was different,” says Stan Greenberg, Clinton’s former pollster. “We were rallying support, and he’d get energy from those. Whereas Obama’s involved in an educative process with voters, trying to explain the problem and show what he’s doing.”

To Obama, educating Americans doesn’t simply mean demystifying the legislative process or walking them through the rationale for his policies. It means offering them a kind of moral instruction, one that reshapes their ideas about what’s required of them—industry, responsibility, empathy, humility—and what’s required of the government (the same). These themes were apparent from the moment he began his inaugural address, when he called our weak economy “a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare our nation for a new age.” He went on to quote Corinthians—that it was time for our nation to “set aside childish things”—and exhorted us all to earn our greatness, rather than opt for shortcuts.

After years of excess, in other words, Obama—lean and disciplined, a father of two young children—was here to tell us that the egoism and exceptionalism of the boom and boomer years were over. Government was no longer an enabling sidekick to our years-long bender. It was a parent, one whose primary objective was to instill responsibility and empathy in its citizens, and to provide the same in return. As Lakoff notes, Obama specifically likened government to a parent in his 2008 Father’s Day address in Chicago, when he told the assembled audience first to set an example of excellence for their children—“Don’t just sit in the house and watch SportsCenter all weekend long”—and second to remind them to look at the world through others’ eyes. “That’s our responsibility as fathers,” he said. “And by the way, it’s a responsibility that also extends to Washington.” At the time, most of the press examined this speech through the prism of racial politics, believing they were watching a black presidential candidate gingerly walk the minefield of speaking honestly to a black audience while simultaneously trying to win over a majority-white electorate. Few considered that Obama may have been outlining his vision of government as a whole.

The values of responsibility and empathy frame his speeches to this day. Last summer, in the Israeli town of Sderot, he empathized with the citizens who’d been shelled: “If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.” This summer, in Cairo, he empathized with the Palestinians: “For more than 60 years, they’ve endured the pain of dislocation,” he said. “And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.” Two weeks ago, during his health-care conference, he spoke of our larger obligations to those without health care, implying it would be immoral to deny them. “This isn’t about me,” Obama said. “This is about every family, every business, and every taxpayer who continues to shoulder the burden … They’re counting on us to get this done … and we can’t let them down.” Let them down, he seemed to be saying, and it’s on you.

It’s an old-fashioned thing to do, moral instruction. Obama’s propensity for it may have something to do with why people perceive him as humorless or prim. It’s not even clear the public’s amenable to it. People may just want their jobs back and the Dow to return to 14,000. Crises have a way of inspiring magical thinking, especially when there’s no food in the larder or money in the bank.

But there are other signs that Obama’s words might be having an impact. According to a Gallup poll from last week, a plurality of Americans believe that health-care reform will cost them more money and result in worse care for themselves. At first blush, these results don’t look good, because they suggest that one of Obama’s messages—that reforming health care will rein in costs and improve services for everyone—has gotten lost. That’s how most pundits played it. But that poll contained another interesting result: The plurality of respondents also said they believed that health-care reform would result in a higher quality of care for the nation overall. That doesn’t mean they liked Obama’s plan. It doesn’t mean they’ll be inclined to support it. But would the electorate have even believed such a thing sixteen years ago, when the Clintons first tried to reform the system? I’m guessing not. I’m guessing they’d have said that universal health care meant a disaster for everyone.

At the very least, Obama has somehow impressed upon people that universal access at least nets to the common good.

“Obama has to go out there on a regular basis so that people will eventually have a different idea of what government and the country is about,” says Lakoff. “That can’t happen overnight. It’s slow, day after day.”

It’s a steady beat of press conferences and town halls and YouTube addresses—a communications lollapalooza, rain or shine. It’s messaging not just as a means to an end, but as a kind of end itself. Three weeks ago, Obama wrote his second op-ed about the economy for the Washington Post. It drew a few raised eyebrows from the blogosphere, as if repeating this gesture so early in his presidency were trivializing his position. But the only surprise—not even a surprise, really, so much as inadvertent note of comedy—was the understated bio that ran below: The writer is president of the United States.

The Message Is the Message