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The White House’s Boffo Week

by Keith Koffler on September 14, 2010, 11:20 am

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.

“Moooooo!”

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.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs

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.

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{ 6 comments }

Star September 14, 2010 at 11:41 am

Pawns on the board–all of us.

Keith Koffler September 14, 2010 at 11:59 am

Yes. Me just gassy cattle.

srdem65 September 14, 2010 at 1:49 pm

I remember a time when the Press would shout out questions at the President at his pressers, follow-up with another question when they didn’t get a satisfactory answer. I remember when the Press didn’t wait to be hand-fed news from the spinner-of-facts, but followed leads to the real story.
But, those were the days when the MSM was King, newspapers were important and opposition voices were hard to hear. Today with the internet, cable news, and opposing views heard every day, the frustration of this WH of not being able to control the message is apparent.
When the President tells the public that 50,000 new jobs were created but doesn’t talk about the 20,000,000 people who are still unemployed, he sounds like a liar, a con man and no amount of evasion or spin will change that. Because the Press gives the Prez a pass, he thinks the public buys that misinformation and can’t understand why the public is angry. The Prez lashes out at the Repubs for their past policies and refusal to go along with his programs but the Press doesn’t call him out on the Dem majority in both houses for the last 5 years.
The O people treat the Press badly because they let them. imo.

Tom September 14, 2010 at 2:18 pm

@srdem65: your right about the old days. I remember watching a press conference with President Kennedy. Wow. It was a free for all, with the press remaining respectful, but throwing out some real zingers to him. Kennedy had such a great disposition (smile, carry, “the look”) that he remained non-plussed and never lost his cool.

@Keith: I would like to hear about what it was like when you FIRST began covering the White House. I know the press has never been this cowed before …. or have they?

Keith Koffler September 14, 2010 at 2:22 pm

Tom, There are still plenty of tough questions and some good questioners, but overall I think this is the most passive press corps I started covering the White House in 1997. Also, right after 2001, the press corps was pretty cowed.

Star September 14, 2010 at 2:29 pm

I am a reporter, although free-roving, and see SUCH a change. To me, it started with that drip Jayson Blair making stuff up at the NYT. I actually had people say to me, “You are asking me? You ask? I thought you guys just put in quotes.” Then, came the Obamagasm at MessBC and Newsweek, mainly, the halos, the pictures of FDR, the new Lincoln, the turning back of the tides, all that crap. Now, when I think of someone fearing the press as a force a la Three Days of the Condor just seems quaint. It’s sad and it makes me angry–who can protect us now? Look out for the truth? Even find out what it is? All we do in the whining class is read and watch EVERYTHING and try to see patterns, figure out for ourselves. right or wrong.