As President Obama barnstorms the country in an attempt to drum up votes for a critical midterm election that is likely to sweep out many incumbent Democrats, the administration's communications strategy will be on full display.
And that strategy has undergone some necessary shifting of late, along with a few audible scrimmage calls at a time when party leaders see Republican spoilers in outlier candidates such as Delaware’s Christine “I Am Not a Witch” O’Donnell. Ultimately, the president’s rhetorical prowess will be judged by next month’s election results, and the White House is planning accordingly.
“There’s some contradictory thinking out there on the part of Democratic strategists, some of whom are saying that part of the president’s problem is he’s been too cool and aloof and that he needs to get in there,” says Andrew Heyward, a media consultant and former president of CBS News. “Certainly his rhetoric has toughened up on a lot of fronts. We’re seeing a more combative stance in the last couple of weeks.”
There are already plenty of opinions about one of the tenets of the administration’s strategy: Making a bogeyman of Fox News. The president returned to that target recently in the pages of Rolling Stone, characterizing the network’s “point of view”—while calling out News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch by name—as being “destructive.”
Irreconcilable differences between presidents and the media that cover them are as old as “Young G. Washington Claims ‘Cannot Lie’ About Massacring Cherry Tree.” More recently, however, the administrations of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, both Bushes and Bill Clinton have had notoriously prickly relationships with the White House press corps. What has shifted in the era of Obama, however, is the balance of power between reportorial media and the opinion media. If the medium is indeed the message in presidential politics, that message is often swamped by the warp-speed, ideologically divided blogosphere and sleepless Twitterverse.
“Reportorial media is a shrinking part of our news environment, and opinion media is a growing part,” observes Tom Rosenstiel, director of the PEW’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. “It’s cheaper and it’s easier to create an affinity, a base, with an audience. They can gravitate to you because they agree with you rather than because the quality of your reporting is so great.”
So zingers tossed off about Fox News— whether by Obama or his advisors and spokespeople—stick to a flypaper media hungry for click-generating headlines. It’s a game of wedge politics inside the Washington press corps, and it’s a game the administration is playing to win.
“It’s an inside-baseball game,” says one veteran political media consultant. “It’s almost like a masturbatory exercise.”
If the stooping-to-conquer posture does not turn voters into believers, it’s certainly red meat for far-right bloggers. And it’s become so for an increasingly imperiled mainstream media.
“It is conceivably effective when the media feel that their position in the marketplace and their connection to audiences is weaker, which most media are worried about now in a way that they weren’t in the 1970s when Nixon was doing this,” says Rosenstiel. “But it always gets attention. And by the way, that’s why an administration does it. You want there to be stories evaluating the criticism and judging whether it’s right and whether it works, because that adds to the echo effect that might intimidate the media that you’re talking about.”
Independent news analyst Andrew Tyndall, however, chalks up the administration’s penchant for attacking Fox News to “lazy shorthand.”
“[Obama’s] actually not talking about Fox News, [but] about that system of organizing opposition to him,” Tyndall observes.
Indeed, the leading voices of the opposition—whether at the Tea Party (Glenn Beck) or the Grand Old Party (Sarah Palin)— are on the payroll, while News Corp. has donated $1 million to the Republican Governors Association.
“It may be boneheaded, but it’s not incorrect for the president to cite Fox News by name. I think [the network] does have quite a central role in mobilizing one or both of his oppositions,” Tyndall adds. “And to understand what’s going on in this election without referencing Fox News would be to willfully ignore it.” Sort of like the elephant in the room.