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Obama Takes New Approach to Rallying Public Support

March 26, 2009 at 6:40 PM EDT
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President Barack Obama took part in an online town hall meeting Thursday, the latest in a blitz of public appearances aimed at boosting support for his economic policies. Analysts and historians offer insight on the president's outreach tactics.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the president’s many ways to get out his message. Jeffrey Brown has our Media Unit report.

BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States: When I was running for president, I promised to open up the White House to the American people, and this event, which is being streamed live over the Internet, marks an important step towards achieving that goal.

JEFFREY BROWN: President Obama this morning, as he began his first-of-its-kind interactive online town hall meeting. The subject was the economic crisis.

QUESTIONER: When can we expect the jobs that have been outsourced to other countries to come back and be made available to the unemployed workers here in the United States?

BARACK OBAMA: I guess the answer to the question is, not all of these jobs are going to come back.

JEFFREY BROWN: The president spent an hour answering questions selected by his staff from the more than 100,000 that came in on the White House Web site.

BARACK OBAMA: We’re going to have to be patient and persistent about job creation, because I don’t think that we’ve lost all the jobs that we’re going to lose in this recession.

JEFFREY BROWN: Billed as an effort on the part of a White House that is, quote, “open for questions,” today’s event was just the latest in a recent blitz of public appearances by the president, as he’s pushed his agenda for fixing the economy and passing his new budget.

Last week, hundreds camped out in Los Angeles for a chance to attend this traditional town hall meeting with the president and pepper him with their concerns.

BARACK OBAMA: If the middle-class is doing well, if working people are doing well, then everybody does well.

JEFFREY BROWN: But while in L.A., President Obama did something no sitting president has ever done. He appeared on a late-night talk show.

JAY LENO, Host, “The Tonight Show”: What should they do, put their money in the bank? Should they be spending money? Should they hide it under their mattress?

BARACK OBAMA: Well, I — look, first of all, everybody should have complete confidence in the banks. Their deposits are protected. They shouldn’t be putting it in their mattresses.

I will leave it up to others to provide individual personal financial advice. But I will say this, that if you’re working right now, obviously, you’ve got to be prudent and you’ve got to recognize that the economy has been in a tough way.

JEFFREY BROWN: The appearance with Jay Leno reached 12.8 million American homes. A few nights later, 16 million viewers tuned in to watch the president on the CBS news program “60 Minutes,” his second appearance on that show since taking office.

This Tuesday, it was back to Washington for a prime-time press conference…

BARACK OBAMA: Is Lourdes here?

JEFFREY BROWN: … where the president notably called on reporters from a wider range of outlets than is typically the case.

The recent blitz even included a nod to millions of fellow basketball fans when the president invited ESPN to the White House to watch him fill in his NCAA tournament bracket.

BARACK OBAMA: Now, for the Tar Heels that are watching, I picked you all last year. You let me down. This year, don’t embarrass me in front of the nation, all right? I’m counting on you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Despite a tough first round, the president’s Final Four picks are all still in play.

Multi-faceted media strategy

Julie Barko Germany
George Washington University
Thirty-year-olds blog. Forty-year-olds blog. Fifty-year-olds shop online, oh, and they also blog. Sixty-year-olds check the weather online. Oh, and they're also on blogs and online media and checking out Web videos, as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: And joining me to discuss the president's outreach efforts are Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, Richard Norton Smith, scholar-in-residence at George Mason University, and Julie Barko Germany, director of the George Washington University's Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet.

Well, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, this event today, an online town hall meeting, fitted into this blitz of public appearances we've been seeing from the president. How do you look at it?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON, Annenberg Public Policy Center: The president has been taking this same message to very different audiences, and in the process he's been calibrating the rhetoric to those audiences' needs.

For example, in the press conference, the recent press conference, what you saw was a rhetoric that was more technical. It was more detailed. Some people who aren't paying high levels of attention to politics might have been confused by some of it, but the elite audience was being communicated to very effectively.

On the Leno show, the audience that pays less attention to politics but nonetheless votes -- and that's the most persuadable audience -- was given reassurance. It was given the outlines of his plan, and it was reassured, "The banks are fine. They're sound."

Well, what the president did today was reached out to the audience that was the core of his campaign, with an Internet strategy that added interactivity and, in the process, translated a campaign process into performance for that audience.

He promised transparency. He promised accountability. He promised a new kind of communication strategy. And what you saw today was over 3 million people coming online to help select the questions he would answer -- hence, they feel that they're part of this event in a unique way -- and over 100,000 people who phrased questions. That's a very important use of interactivity to reinforce that message with a core audience.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Julie Barko Germany, who are these people? Who is the audience for something like an event like this? Where are we, in terms of political communication on the Internet?

JULIE BARKO GERMANY, George Washington University: Well, the online audience looks a lot like you, me, our neighbors, and our co-workers. It's not just a playground for 18- to 25-year-olds anymore.

Thirty-year-olds blog. Forty-year-olds blog. Fifty-year-olds shop online, oh, and they also blog. Sixty-year-olds check the weather online. Oh, and they're also on blogs and online media and checking out Web videos, as well. So increasingly the online audience looks a lot like the American public as a whole.

Sense of public participation

Richard Norton Smith
George Mason University
Forty years ago, the White House would have called three men sitting in towers in New York and said, "Give me a half-hour of primetime tomorrow night for a presidential address." There would have been no questions asked.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in an event like this, how interactive is it?

JULIE BARKO GERMANY: How interactive is it really? It definitely has the appearance of being highly interactive. After all, 90,000 people submitted 100,000 questions, and they were voted on 3 million times.

But it's not the type of interactivity that you or I would have going online and Tweeting our friends or going on Facebook and updating a profile or e-mailing each other or posting a comment on a blog. There's still a gatekeeper, and the gatekeeper is the people who selected the questions.

It was a wonderful piece of performance, but that performance was still staged, and it was still performance.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Richard, what jumps out at you about this? This is a new technology.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: Yes. Well, it's a new media culture, too, which means it's a new political culture. I mean, the YouTube nation bears very little resemblance to Teddy Roosevelt's bully pulpit.

The concept is the same: the idea of a president practicing what Woodrow Wilson called government by advocacy, FDR with the fireside chats or John F. Kennedy with his mastery of televised press conferences.

But it's a much more fragmented audience in line with what Kathleen was saying, and that's why you see all of these individual targeted efforts at outreach by the president, trying to reach different parts of the audience.

Forty years ago, the White House would have called three men sitting in towers in New York and said, "Give me a half-hour of primetime tomorrow night for a presidential address." There would have been no questions asked. And in those days, the president could actually move numbers significantly.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Kathleen, you started talking about the different -- maybe it's the same message, but different ways it's put forward. Address the Internet directly. I mean, is it changing the kind of political rhetoric that we have seen in the past or the political communication that's possible?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Well, what's interesting about today is not so much what President Obama said -- although it's interesting to hear the question about whether legalized marijuana would jump-start the economy and hear his answer saying, no, he didn't think that was the solution -- but what is actually more interesting than the fact that you've seen the same message across these various forums is that the nature of the questions asked gives the White House the ability to basically take the temperature of the electorate.

A large swath of the constituency for Obama had the chance to say, "This is what of central concern to me," and, in the process, to feel that it was participating in politics in a different way, to feel that at least the president's staff had read its questions.

That's the dramatic change today. And that sense of participation was one that that Obama campaign cultivated very effectively in its campaign for the presidency by turning a lot of responsibility over to a field operation that it communicated to through the Internet.

By the way, one of the other channels of communication has been through the Internet, e-mails to constituents who are being urged to go out and sell the president's message on the economic recovery plan.

Transparency on the Web

Julie Barko Germany
The George Washington University
This idea of transparency online actually emerged from corporate culture, when people heading up tech companies in Silicon Valley decided to blog about their companies, warts and all.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you know, Julie Barko Germany, Kathleen Hall Jamieson used another word earlier, "transparency," that the president uses a lot. Is the Internet inherently more transparent? I mean, help us understand what that means. Or is it another language that is being used to manipulate, communicate? I mean, manipulate not in a bad way, but just used.

JULIE BARKO GERMANY: It's definitely a great catchword today, and it usually signals, "I'm a good guy. I get transparency."

People associate the term "transparency" with the Internet so much because of the vast amounts of information that are on there and the fact that you or I could go online tonight and find very interesting, distinct details about practically every aspect of our lives.

This idea of transparency online actually emerged from corporate culture, when people heading up tech companies in Silicon Valley decided to blog about their companies, warts and all. They would talk about the good stuff online and the bad stuff in order to build relationships of trust with their customers and with other companies in Silicon Valley.

And we're starting to see that trickle up to the presidency now. It's about building trust with the American people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, Richard, because we've seen that the Internet has been a double-edged sword. We've seen it in political races already.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Oh, my god. Well, it's a double-edged sword in a number of ways, because the fact is, yes, the president can command on the Internet the attention that 40 years ago he'd had on network television for a few minutes.

But before he's even done, the Twittering classes are out there, in effect, passing judgment on what he's saying in real time. And so everyone becomes Eric Sevareid. Everyone's performing instant analysis.

And I think one reason why you see this president moving such an ambitious agenda so early in his presidency is he knows from history that it's tough to get big things done after your first year, but he also understands the nature of the modern media culture in which we live.

Danger of overexposure

Kathleen Hall Jamieson
University of Pennsylvania
He's not overexposed with the American people. They aren't following politics that closely.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does he also learn from history, or might he learn from history, that there's the potential for overexposure?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: The single greatest danger, I think, confronting the modern presidency are all those satellite trucks parked figuratively around the White House.

Presidents come into our homes 24/7. They use up our affections like most houseguests. And four years is a long time for that kind of exposure. Eight years is an eternity. So that is a real challenge that every modern president confronts.

You know, Franklin Roosevelt understood, when he did the fireside chats, people think he did every week. He delivered 30 in 12 years. He understood the dangers of overexposure.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kathleen Hall Jamieson, what do you think about this notion of overexposure? I was just thinking about the NCAA brackets. You know, we see it this year. Are we going to keep seeing things like that? Or is that -- should he be putting himself out there like that so often?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: You know, the people who are saying overexposure are the ones who are paying very close attention to multiple channels of communication. I bet those people who are the media elites, the pundit class, and the scholars who spend their time studying this tune to new forms of communication in order to keep watching the president as he moved across these alternative venues.

He's not overexposed with the American people. They aren't following politics that closely. They're not watching 24-hour-a-day news to see that you're seeing him it seems practically every morning on the cable stations, making some kind of an announcement from the Oval Office or meeting with some foreign head of state.

They're occasionally catching him in the venues that they're watching. They're occasionally turning into parts of the speech to the joint session of Congress.

He will be overexposed at the point at which when they catch him in those moments they feel that they've heard it before and, as a result, he's not doing anything new or he's not answering the questions that they actually have, which is why today's forum was so effective.

Even if you know nothing about the content of the questions, you now probably know from nightly news that he took questions from the American people. That's an important symbolic statement.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. Julie Barko Germany, that's an important issue, I mean, the echo effect, right? He did that this morning on the Internet. Here we are talking about it on our program. No doubt it gets out in other ways.

JULIE BARKO GERMANY: Incredibly important. The more we use technology and interactive technology, like the Internet or our mobile phone, the more our expectations change, not just for ourselves or the companies we shop from, but from our elected officials.

So holding this town hall today and taking those questions online and Web-casting it, incredibly important for showing the American people that you're willing to meet their expectations and communicate to them through their medium of choice.

JEFFREY BROWN: Brief last word?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yes. And to meet them, you know? Abraham Lincoln understood the presidency was a bubble. Two days a week, he opened the White House. Citizens could come in and talk to him. Most of them wanted a job. Everyone said, "You're wasting your time." No polls in those days. That's how he kept in touch.

President Obama has talked eloquently about the bubble. This may very well be one attempt on his part to reach beyond the bubble and talk to real people.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Julie Barko Germany, Richard Norton Smith, thank you all very much.