It has become his common lament. Challenged about difficulties with his economic or legislative programs, US President Barack Obama complains about the tyranny of “the news cycle,” pronouncing the words with an air of above-it-all disdain for the impatience and fecklessness of today’s media culture.
Yet after six months in office, perhaps no other president has been more attuned to, or done more to dominate, the news cycle he disparages.
Obama has given roughly three times as many interviews as former president George W. Bush and held four times as many prime-time news conferences as former president Bill Clinton had by comparable points in their terms.
In the past four days, Obama gave “exclusive” interviews to Jim Lehrer of PBS, Katie Couric of CBS and Meredith Vieira of NBC. He gave two interviews to the Washington Post on one day, one to the editorial page editor and one to news reporters. He held a conference call with bloggers. His hour-long session in the East Room on Wednesday night was his second news conference of the day. And on Thursday, he invited Terry Moran of ABC to spend the day with him for a Nightline special.
The all-Obama, all-the-time carpet bombing of the news media represents a strategy by a White House seeking to deploy its most effective asset in service of its goals, none more critical now than healthcare legislation. But longtime Washington hands warn that saturation coverage can diminish the power of his voice and lose public attention.
About 24.7 million viewers tuned in on Wednesday, according to Nielsen ratings, some 4 million fewer than watched his last evening news conference in April and 25 million fewer than saw his first in February. Obama’s focus on healthcare produced what Chuck Todd of NBC described as a “snoozer conference,” a line the Republican National Committee happily adopted.
“I’m really perplexed. It’s unbelievable,” said Karen Hughes, Bush’s White House counselor. “They’ve taken his greatest political asset — his gifts as a communicator — and totally diluted them. It’s been especially notable in the last couple weeks.”
Some Democrats said Obama should worry about frittering away the novelty of his presence.
“It’s a risk of overexposure,” said Joe Trippi, a political consultant. “If you use it all up on healthcare, you may not be able to use it on something else. But if you’re going to risk using it all up, this is the one to risk it on.”
Past presidents have been more exclusive in giving exclusives, believing they would have more impact that way.
In their first four months, Clinton gave 11 interviews and Bush gave 18, compared with 43 by Obama, said Martha Joynt Kumar, a presidential communications scholar at Towson State University.
That has accelerated in recent days as Obama popped up in venues ranging from Anderson Cooper 360 on CNN to Dr. Nancy on MSNBC.
“In part, he is omnipresent because news organizations want to carry news about him, his goals, and his initiatives,” Kumar said. “If he does not use the space he has available to him, he risks ceding it to his critics.”
Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said the current news media world left little choice.
“You worry about overexposure maybe very deeply in the back of your mind,” Gibbs said. “But the way the media is structured these days and the fact that it is so segmented and split up means that in order to get something to go through, you’ve got to do multiple platforms.”