When New York Times columnist David Brooks accused the White House last week of “shaking confidence with its hyperactivity,” no fewer than four senior administration officials reached out to explain — ever so politely — how he was wrong.
Overkill? Maybe. But it’s what journalists have come to expect from an administration that’s trying much harder than its predecessor did to influence inside-the-Beltway opinion makers.
President Barack Obama dined with conservative columnists at George Will’s house even before he took the oath of office, and he continues to work the refs now. After a 35-minute interview with the Times White House team last week, the president called back to quibble with a question he’d been asked and to elaborate on the answer he’d given.
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The communications team for President George W. Bush would have been much more likely to let the initial response stand and then blast the Times after publication — all the better for fanning the passions of a political base deeply distrustful of the mainstream media.
Andrew Rosenthal, The Times’ editorial page director, says the Obama White House has been more “proactive” than the Bush White House was, offering up policy thinkers to more fully explain the administration’s positions — both before and after columns and editorials run.
“I’ve had more unsolicited offers for participation from the Obama people in 45 days than in the last eight years from Bush,” said Rosenthal.
Rosenthal said the Obama administration’s approach is consistent with the one the Obama campaign used, and for a reason: It worked. Citing an example, he said that an Obama campaign aide succeeded in convincing him back in July — before an editorial ran — that Obama had not, in fact, reversed his position on a controversial D.C. handgun ban.
“With columnists and editorial writers,” Rosenthal said, “I think the theory is that you can actually have an impact.”
Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt said in an e-mail that the Obama team has been “open and responsive” to requests from The Post’s editorial writers. Hiatt said that helps The Post “produce smarter and more knowledgeable editorials.”
“My general view is, the more exchange of views, the better,” Hiatt added. “I welcome any outreach from the White House to my columnists or editorial board.”
Already, five of Hiatt’s writers have made it to one of the president’s meet-and-greets with columnists. E.J. Dionne has taken part in two — a gathering of predominantly liberal writers held at the transition office and, more recently, a smaller group discussion aboard Air Force One.
“I think whenever you can talk to the president about what he’s thinking — and when the president is a former professor who’s pretty good at speaking with small groups of people — it’s effective,” said Dionne.
Dionne, who admitted to being “broadly sympathetic” to Obama’s policies, met with Clinton when he was president but never had the opportunity to meet with Bush. “I was neither offended or surprised,” he said.
In an interview, Brooks said that Obama’s people respond quickly to columns with which they find fault — but that, in doing so, they refrain from “personal insults,” opting for a “very nice, very evidence-based” approach instead.
The Obama outreach effort is different than Bush’s in part because the previous administration “only reached out to people who automatically agreed with them.”
While conservative columnists were invited to the Bush White House, the Obama team has sat down with writers from across the ideological spectrum, among them syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib, The National Journal’s Ron Brownstein, The Times’ Frank Rich and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.
“The president thinks it’s important to let folks know what’s happening in his administration,” said deputy press secretary Bill Burton. “These meetings offer an opportunity to do that.”
Burton said to expect more such meetings in the future, including a presidential sit-down with prominent bloggers.
There’s a downside to all the media-courting, a risk that the new administration will seem preoccupied with the chattering classes from Georgetown and the Upper West Side and therefore out of touch with flyover country.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs is sensitive to that perception. As The New York Times Magazine reported just weeks after the election, the Obama campaign “bragged that [Obama] never even visited with the editorial board of The Washington Post.” And Gibbs talked about how “you could go to Cedar Rapids and Waterloo and understand that people aren’t reading The Washington Post.”
But the White House knows that what gets written in Washington and New York filters out into the country — and that it needs support from those who are most likely to get their news from the inside-the-Beltway press, members of Congress, policy wonks and, of course, other journalists.
Is the outreach working?
Brooks, who met with Bush while in the administration’s good graces, said the conservative columnists who met with Obama before the Inauguration were all “really impressed by him” on a personal level. But subsequent columns by Krauthammer or Will show that they haven’t exactly become “Obama fans,” he said.
Rosenthal wondered if the Bush team had the kind of contact with The Wall Street Journal editorial board that the Obama team does now. WSJ editorial page editor Paul Gigot declined comment, but Tony Blankley — who ran The Washington Times’ conservative editorial page during the bulk of Bush’s tenure — suggested that it probably wasn’t so.
Although Blankley said he spoke regularly with senior Bush administration officials, many of whom he’d known for years, he said the Bush press team’s outreach was not as “aggressive in putting out useful things or complaining about editorials they didn’t like” as Obama’s is.
Part of the reason for that, says Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, is that, like former President Bill Clinton, Obama “likes this sort of thing — the exchange with pundits.”
Page said he received a call on Feb. 12 from Ellen Moran, the White House communications director, asking if he’d like to fly on Air Force One to Chicago with the president. The following day, Page — along with Dionne, Brownstein, Times columnist Bob Herbert and The Post’s Kathleen Parker — got to chat on the record with Obama for 55 minutes.
“He wanted to get his own message out in an environment that wasn’t really friendly or hostile,” said Page, “but was accommodating to him to let him finish his thoughts.”
What followed was a handful of columns detailing Obama’s economic strategy, coming straight from the horse’s mouth. But Page said that such a meeting is a way to “humanize” the president in the mind of writers — and their readers.
Parker, a conservative who clashed with Republicans over the Sarah Palin nomination, wrote a very personal account of the trip for The Daily Beast. There, she talked about the “adorable” Obama daughters and the president’s calm nature. “If you cut Obama open,” she said, “you’d find a little Buddha sitting inside, smiling.”
The personal touch is important, Dionne said, because “human beings, being who we are, it’s probably harder to eviscerate someone who you’ve sat down with and decided isn’t an evil person.”