During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama made clear his distaste of the news cycle and its trivial obsessions. Skeptics said this would hurt his chances: that to win, a candidate must dominate the news day-by-day, minute-by-minute, with attacks that keep the opposition off-balance. Yet the Obama campaign managed to win by emphasizing a longer-term strategy over the hair-trigger approach.
But on Jan. 20, for all intents and purposes President Obama became the news cycle. His ambitions for toning down Washington's nasty partisan warfare -- and with that, creating better prospects for his agenda -- depend on his ability to nudge the news cycle away from the cable network- and Drudge-driven obsession with transient panics and cultural outrages. (An obsession that the Bush administration, with its focus on divisive electoral politics, actively cultivated.) On that front, he's been only partially successful so far. But more so than many of us thought going in.
The media love nothing more than scandal, failure and disaster. But so far Obama has declined to provide them. The White House's frenzy of activity during the first 100 days -- much of it politically and substantively successful, with the opposition in disarray -- more or less requires that news about him focus on relaying facts. It's hard to stick with "who's up, who's down" when there's only one player on the field.
And as Dan Kennedy notes, Obama has been a boon to the media business. It's more fun and better for ratings to cover a glamorous new president than an unpopular old one. The camera loves Obama, his family, even his dog. His professorial cool is a stark contrast to the at-sea press conference performances of his predecessor. We're also facing various alarming crises, so for various reasons -- information, reassurance -- people want to hear what Obama has to say: his prime time press conferences draw an impressive number of viewers. Robert Gibbs's White House press office, meanwhile, has been strategically smart. It has sat Obama down with conservative and liberal columnists and bloggers, and had the president give non-traditional media (including the Huffington Post) a turn at press conferences. Not surprisingly, these are explicit choices to bypass the insular White House press corps in the shaping of public opinion.
Obama has lagged on the transparency front -- the creation of a friendly interface that will allow journalists, bloggers -- and everyone else -- full access to information and data from the White House and rest of the government.. But the technical obstacles are formidable, so this will take time.
Where is all this going? We probably won't know until Obama makes his first big stumble and has to fend off the wolves. But neither a Lewinsky nor a Rovian gambit seems likely from this White House, so that's progress in itself. Grade: A minus.