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OFF TO THE RACES

New President Meets New Media

Obama's Unconventional Trio Of Television Appearances Seems To Have Paid Off

It was hard to hear both second-guessing and criticism of President Obama's decision to go on ESPN to discuss his picks for the NCAA men's basketball tournament and to appear on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

Add a rather unusual taping for Sunday night's "60 Minutes" and it was one of the most unusual weeks of presidential television appearances to date. It was at least the most unusual for any elected official since then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich's pre-impeachment media tour.

 

Conventional ways of communicating with voters might no longer be adequate.

One Bush pollster privately warned that the White House was risking overexposure. Others wondered whether it was the right time for a president to push nontraditional media exposure at a time of great financial crisis and with two wars occurring.

But the Gallup Organization's three-night tracking polls (with 1,500 interviews over three nights and 3-point error margin) suggest the White House need not be worried. Obama's job-approval rating in the Gallup poll had been at 62 percent, with 27 percent disapproval, through Thursday night, before his Leno appearance aired. But Gallup's Thursday-Saturday and Friday-Sunday samples showed Obama's approval at 65 percent, with 26 disapproving.

 

This is hardly significant movement, and I'm not necessarily arguing that his approval ratings increased because of those appearances. Nevertheless, his approval certainly didn't take a significant hit because he went on either. At this point, there was no other reason for his numbers to improve, what with the public being mostly preoccupied with wanting to tar and feather American International Group bonus recipients. At the very least it suggests that the administration didn't take an immediate hit over the bonuses.

For those who have been in or watched politics closely for many years, it's hard to adjust to this new media age, but conventional ways of communicating with voters might not be adequate, with fewer reading newspapers and news magazines, watching television news or listening to conventional radio news programming.

This means you have to reach into the corners of the electorate to find those who aren't reading or watching traditional news. These voters can be tapped with Oprah, ESPN, or Leno or David Letterman.

Apart from those who because of partisanship or ideology are predisposed to be critical to begin with, an avid sports fan and ESPN-watcher who has just finished his or her own NCAA brackets isn't likely to be offended seeing a president offer his basketball picks. Similarly, a Leno viewer isn't likely to find offense in his appearances there (although it may be going too far for the president to appear on either "House" or "Law And Order," my two favorite shows).

 

But at the same time, just because a medium is new doesn't make it a great idea. I have yet to hear a single intelligent remark twittered by an elected official and was embarrassed for the Congress watching so many members Twittering away on the House floor during the president's speech last month. The vacuous utterances Twittered daily from members of Congress make me wonder how they have the time to spend keying in on such banalities and marveling over the narcissism implicit in their belief that anyone cares about their every single thought and reaction to contemporaneous events.

Further, with members several times a week having to explain why they Twittered some inappropriate remark (it is hard to blame these on staff), it serves as a reminder to all of us that once "send" is hit, there is no recalling anything. But it appears that the goal of appearing hip, relevant and accessible overrules good taste and judgment, so the Twitters continue. But before members hit send again, they might want to ask themselves whether the content of the message is really going to impress anyone with its brilliance. The answer is probably no.

Still, this is a new communication age. Traditional judgments might leave opportunities unmet. When the Obama campaign last summer decided to hold the Thursday night Democratic National Convention session and their candidate's acceptance speech at the Denver Broncos' football stadium, a lot of us older folks wondered whether it was too risky, or whether inclement weather, traffic or a lousy sound system might mar the most important night of the convention. Of course, it went off like clockwork and probably made Ronald Reagan's media maven Michael Deaver smile down from the heavens in approval.

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One important caveat is that whether one likes and agrees politically with Obama or not, he is a skilled communicator on the same scale as Reagan, so a "kids, don't try this at home" warning is probably necessary. These aren't chances for the typical elected official or candidate, only for those particularly gifted.

This is a new day, with new approaches. Some will work, and some won't. But it looks like Obama's trifecta of unconventional television appearances worked out positively.

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