I think it was 1997, during the Balanced Budget Act negotiations. I was standing outside then-Speaker Gingrich’s office with a herd of other reporters waiting in pitched anticipation for even the barest bit of news to emerge from the talks.
Suddenly, there appeared to be movement – maybe a door opened or we saw someone apparently ready to come out – and we shuffled as a single entity in the direction of possible news.
It was a member of Gingrich’s security detail, posted outside the door, offering his commentary on the cattle-like nature of the press and shooting us a mean-spirited “What are you going to do about it?” look.
Well, given that he had a machine gun in his pocket, the answer was, nothing.
And of course, I hated it, but he was right.
The press, if you understand it, is a fairly predictable animal that can be controlled. The Obama people have made much less use of this fact than their forefathers in the Clinton administration, who herded the press like PR cowboys. But last week, things were different.
The rollout of Obama’s latest prescription for the economy – a few new tax cuts along with some concrete for road building – was a brilliant exercise in news management. Obama’s press agents managed to keep the president’s latest stimulus package – which by the way has no chance of passing before Election Day – in the news all week, despite challenges for ink from a mad Koran-burner and other events.
The method was the perfect implementation of Clinton Press Secretary Mike McCurry’s dictum: Tell ‘em what you’re going to do; do it; and then, tell ‘em what you did.
The sophistication and discipline of the effort contrasts strikingly with House Republican Leader John Boehner’s bumbling assertion Sunday that he’d take the Obama tax plan, something obviously offered up without coordination with the rest of the GOP message team, which promptly rejected the idea.
First, the New York Times “broke” the story on Saturday, Sept. 4 that Obama would in a speech the following Wednesday call for making permanent the research and development tax credit prized by the Chamber of Commerce and the rest of the big business lobby. The story, given the details it contained and its sourcing to “administration officials,” was clearly leaked by the White House itself.
Predictably, the rest of the news world scurried feverishly to catch up, running their own stories to match the New York Times. One thing: THIS WAS OLD NEWS. OBAMA ALREADY PROPOSED THE MEASURE IN THE BUDGET HE RELEASED IN FEBRUARY. All he was doing was repackaging and elevating it.
By early Monday morning, the rest of the program had been leaked bit by bit, with news dripping out about Obama’s plans to provide incentives for capital expenditures and build some more roads. At 10:00 am Monday, the White House offered up a couple of officials to speak to everyone about the $50 billion worth of “infrastructure” that was going to be laid down.
So now, everyone had their stories straight and had written them, AND THE BIG SPEECH WAS STILL TWO DAYS AWAY.
Finally, the speech itself on Wednesday, which provided an added angle for everyone to write about: Obama bashed Republican House Leader John Boehner about 20 times, signaling Boehner was now the official new GOP Bogeyman.
But Obama wasn’t done. It was time to tell everyone what he had done. Voila, a PRESS CONFERENCE staged Friday to talk about the speech, TWO DAYS AFTER THE SPEECH. In an unusual move that points to the coordinated message strategy, the press conference was scheduled and announced a full week in advance. We normally hear about press conferences the day before or so.
Humph. And now six days after the speech, some people are still writing about it.