Barack Obama Talks for the Cycle

Maybe it would have been more interesting if the White House had taken a page from Ronald Reagan’s old playbook.

It was back in December 1987 when, with just over a year left in his second term, Reagan played host to a Washington summit with Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev. In terms of domestic politics, it was a touchy, sensitive moment for the president, with his own conservative base enraged by his plans to sign the I.N.F. treaty during the meeting.

So, in an effort to rally the nation before Gorbachev’s arrival, the White House arranged for the anchors from all four major television news outlets—Dan Rather of CBS, Peter Jennings from ABC, NBC’s Tom Brokaw, and Bernard Shaw of CNN—to interview Reagan together. On December 4, the anchors took turns asking questions, and then their networks repackaged the footage into 30-minute specials that aired at different times that night.

Facing a similarly critical moment—the fate of his health care reform push is now on the line—Obama went for the same saturation effect on Sunday. But his modified “Full Ginsburg”—sitting for individual interviews on every major Sunday morning interview show except “Fox News Sunday”—wasn’t quite as efficient.

The problem was as unavoidable as it was easy to see coming. It was obvious what topics each interviewer would bring up in his 15 or so minutes with Obama, and there really aren’t that many different ways to ask about them.

For instance, any host who didn’t spend a few minutes on Jimmy Carter’s comment last week that some of the most outlandish opposition to Obama’s health care effort comes from people who believe a black man “ought not be president and ought not be given the same respect as if he were white” would have been accused of journalistic malpractice; but what else can you really do except ask Obama whether he thinks there’s something to it—as David Gregory, George Stephanopoulos, Bob Schieffer, and John King all did?

Obama, of course, had his talking points down cold for the Carter question. Whether, in his heart and soul, Obama actually shares Carter’s view is immaterial; the White House believes (probably accurately) that the political cost of saying so would be unbearable. So Obama spent a few minutes giving the same basic answer to each interviewer: Yes, there are people who don’t like me because I’m black, just like there are people who do like me because I’m black; but no, that has nothing to do with the health care debate.

He even repeated exact phrases, for instance telling both Gregory and King that the Carter story had been “catnip” for a media that rewards rude behavior with “15 minutes of fame.”

It was the same story on other topics. After grilling him on health care and Carter, each interviewer reserved a bloc of time for Afghanistan, where Obama may soon be asked by General Stanley McChrystal to send even more troops. But no matter what unique twist they put on their questions, the interviewers all received the same stock answer, with Obama noting that Afghanistan policy had been “adrift” when he took office and, essentially, asking for time to get it right.

Both King and Schieffer asked why he was still talking about formulating a plan after announcing a new one back in March; Obama reminded them both that he’d said back in March that he’d revisit and re-examine the plan after six months.

On health care, the major reason he granted the interviews, Obama clearly had middle-class voters who currently have insurance on his mind. Invariably, he tried to frame his answers in a way that might convince them he’s aware of their concerns and is looking out for them. On each network, he made sure to point out that the average premium went up by 5.5 percent last year, “this despite the fact that inflation was negative on almost everything else.”

The result of all of this was a series of interviews that all looked and sounded pretty much the same. In total, Obama was on the four shows for about 70 minutes. But after you watched one, there really wasn’t much new ground plowed in any of the others, and it became an exercise in message repetition, with his answers sounding less considered and authentic than pre-rehearsed and packaged.

That said, there were some differences between the interviews. Stephanopoulos was by far the most aggressive questioner, trying to play gotcha with a question—and about 12 follow-ups, one in which he invoked the Merriam-Webster dictionary—about whether an individual health insurance mandate is tantamount to a tax hike.

Schieffer was more curious about foreign affairs, asking the only question about the Bush-instigated missile defense shield that Obama abandoned last week. King was the only host to spend time on jobs and the economy (and to ask if Obama would be getting an H1N1 vaccine shot); and Gregory asked for a non-White Sox World Series prediction.

From a viewer’s standpoint, though, the old Reagan model would have been preferable on Sunday. Once one interviewer had asked about Carter, the rest would have been free to ignore and ask about other subjects. And the interviewers, instead of each straining to make sure they hit every major topic of the day in their 15 minutes with the president, would have had more leeway to pursue interesting follow-ups and to press Obama for more specificity. And Gregory could still have asked about baseball, too.