Decades ago, when Pat Buchanan was working as an adviser to President Richard Nixon, he looked forward to the administration’s televised press conferences, which were held infrequently and with caution. At the time, Mr. Nixon’s relationship with the Washington press corps was fraught with tension. For Mr. Buchanan, the high potential for acrimony turned every press conference into a synapse-popping affair.
“They were crackling with tension and dissent and anger and raw emotion,” Mr. Buchanan recalled recently to The Observer. “When Richard Nixon walked out there, it was the Colosseum, and everybody’s thumb was down. It was something worth covering and worth watching.”
Six months into Barack Obama’s presidency, White House press conferences have proved to hold little potential for combustibility. Instead of hand-to-hand combat, those who have tuned in on TV have been treated to the stultifying sight of a White House lullaby. Mr. President, what enchants you the most?
“Obama has an adulatory press corps,” said Mr. Buchanan. “There’s no real tension there. It’s convivial.”
And nearly unwatchable.
On Wednesday, July 23, Mr. Obama strolled into the East Room arena and proceeded to deliver arguably the most listless televised hour of his current term. With Congress still mulling over various plans for health care reform, Mr. Obama came to the American people with nothing specific to sell. Perhaps as a result, it was an affair with little seduction. In the absence of passion, Mr. Obama offered up a seemingly long series of mild-mannered rebuttals of ideas and charges from persons not in the room.
“I’ve heard that one Republican strategist told his party that even though they may want to compromise, it’s better politics to ‘go for the kill,’” said Mr. Obama. “Another Republican senator, that defeating health care reform is about ‘breaking’ me.”
It was an admirable stab at stirring up some drama, at creating some excitement around a topic and a debate that fail to inspire much emotion in Americans despite the fact that health care is a vital issue. But the effort fell flat. Worse, the president gave his best lines to his unnamed adversaries. In the end, those who welcomed him into their living rooms were left to suffer a bore. Mr. Obama didn’t exactly vomit on the rug, to borrow a phrase from The Selling of the President. It was more of a dry heave.
No wonder, then, that with each passing press conference, fewer and fewer Americans are re-issuing the invitation. Since the start of the year, President Obama has held four prime-time press conferences. According to Nielsen data, each successive foray onto national television has attracted significantly less total viewers than the last, from February’s 49.4 million on the stimulus plan to March’s 40.3 million on the economic recovery to April’s 28.8 million on the first hundred days to this most recent outing—24.6 million viewers for a press conference about the stupidity of the Cambridge police, er, health care.
Recently, The Observer spoke with a handful of seasoned political operatives who have advised various presidents over the years about media strategy. Everyone agreed that the president should be concerned about his plummeting ratings. Opinions differed, however, on where things had gone wrong.
Nicolle Wallace, the former director of communications for the White House under George W. Bush, told The Observer that she thought the president’s plunging television ratings were a symptom of other problems.
“The unpopularity of his policies is catching up with him,” Ms. Wallace wrote to The Observer via email. “He is and will probably remain very personally popular. People like him and people historically root for their president. But the country didn’t change its basic values and fundamental philosophies last November. They were intrigued by Obama and furious at the party in power. Obama has misread his ‘mandate.’ The public doesn’t want the federal government to run American companies, hire and fire CEOs or take over their health care.”
And then there was a stylistic problem: “The reliance on the prompter makes it very boring and unemotional TV,” Ms. Wallace added.
David Gergen, political consultant and adviser-to-many-presidents, chalked up Mr. Obama’s struggles last Wednesday to the subject matter. “Health care is such a complicated subject,” said Mr. Gergen. “My impression is that he handled it with great depth. But it’s hard to hold people’s attention.
“Given the complexity of the subject, he might have been better advised to give a speech with charts and graphs,” said Mr. Gergen. “Then there would also have been a structure. Here’s what’s wrong with the current system. And here, in three or four steps, is how we plan to fix it. The very nature of a press conference is that you jump from one subject to the next. It’s hard to have a logical presentation.”
But the main problem, Mr. Gergen believed, was one of frequency. The White House is scheduling Obama TV way too often. “People can get a little numb,” said Mr. Gergen. “By comparison, Franklin Roosevelt, a superb communicator, had three fireside chats in his first six months. History suggests that even the best communicators, if they go too often, wear out their welcome.”
Mr. Buchanan agreed. He suggested that Mr. Obama’s strategists should learn to use their top TV draw more sparingly. “Nixon would always tell me that he was a great admirer of the Gauls,” said Mr. Buchanan. “The sense of reserve—of distance between the head of state and the people—is something that provides a magnetism and an attraction.”
He recalled the quotation from the English essayist Walter Bagehot: “We must not let daylight in upon the magic.”
“You see this happen with the British royal family,” said Mr. Buchanan. “Familiarity breeds contempt. It loses its luster. It’s a bore.”