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Getting to know the Obamas, on their terms

FamilyElectionsPolitics and GovernmentWhite HousePeriodicalsNewspaper and MagazineBarack Obama

Reporting from Washington — In the short time Americans have come to know their new first family, they've learned that the president doesn't want a puppy sleeping on his bed, the girls hate green veggies but at least one loves peanut butter, and the first lady believes her husband should stay out of her closet.

Like a reality show set on the glorified soundstage at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., the details of one family's life have captivated the country -- if not the world -- making the Obamas seem within reach, an ordinary family that just happens to be living an extraordinary existence.

But these glimpses into the Obama household are far from spontaneous. Instead, they are part of a careful strategy that has helped bolster the new president's popularity and political clout -- even as he promotes some economic policies, such as bailouts for banks and automakers, that lack broad appeal.

The White House, eager to cultivate an image-making media machinery that thrives on personality, has invited coverage from such outlets as television's "Access Hollywood" and "Extra." Aides dole out exclusives accordingly, acutely aware of the shelf life for cover stories in glamour and celebrity magazines.

Administration officials have even weighed the economics of paparazzi photography, strategically releasing images of the family to diminish the monetary value of unauthorized pictures and give the White House control over how the family is portrayed. In return for access, celebrity news outlets must refuse to publish unauthorized pictures -- or risk being cut off by the White House.

"If there are no images, then you create a supply-and-demand problem where the supply is none and the demand is huge," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said. "If there is at least some supply that continues in a way that is respectful to who they are, you drive down the price and the paparazzi is not part of the equation."

The efforts have yielded political benefits for a president who, not long ago, was viewed by many as a rarity: a biracial candidate with roots in Hawaii, Kenya and Indonesia whose campaign was routinely forced to swat down rumors that he was a Muslim. On election day, polls showed that many Americans still were not sure whether Obama shared their values; now surveys show approval ratings in the 60s with a vast majority saying they trust him.

Michelle Obama, who scored dismal poll ratings last year when critics accused her of disrespecting America, now scores higher numbers than her husband -- in the 70s.

Much of the family coverage is coordinated by Michelle Obama's office and guided, in part, by a newly hired aide with unusual experience in the industries that shape image. Camille Johnston, a former aide to the Gore family, has worked as an executive in the magazine and entertainment worlds and until recently headed the Dodgers' communications department.

Since November, American magazine readers have seen a steady stream of coverage lionizing the Obamas and their marriage -- with access parceled out to Vogue, People, Essence and O, Oprah Winfrey's magazine.

"The Obama team has been masterful in the management of the image and the allocation of stories," said Angela Burt-Murray, editor of Essence, a magazine geared toward black women that was given access to Michelle Obama and her mother for a spread on their family life. "There's definitely a science to the way they're approaching this."

Embracing celebrity news outlets is nothing new for presidents or political figures, who are usually eager to relate to average Americans. The Clintons and Bushes sought coverage in People magazine, Ladies' Home Journal and other media that would showcase the families' softer sides. Bill Clinton inaugurated the tradition of appearing on late-night network television shows.

But White House aides and celebrity news executives say the Obamas are taking this engagement to a new level -- a result of intense public interest in the first black occupants of the White House and of the Obamas' desire to portray themselves as regular folks.

The White House last month welcomed a correspondent from "Extra," a celebrity TV show, for a sit-down interview with social secretary Desiree Rogers, a close Obama friend. One portion was headlined, "Obama Family: A to Z!"

Rogers assured viewers that the Obamas are "real people." She said that the first lady "maybe likes food a little bit more" and the president "would be satisfied just to have a salad and a boiled egg."

"They're much more fun to cover," said Lisa Gregorisch-Dempsey, senior executive producer of "Extra." "Michelle, with her friendship with Oprah, is just such a player in this world. And that love story with him -- it's almost too good to be true."

Last week, the Obama family put itself front and center as daughters Malia and Sasha joined their parents on the White House lawn for two made-for-television events. The girls participated in the annual Easter Egg Roll, and then starred in one of Washington's great media frenzies as they introduced Bo, their new Portuguese water dog. The pictures of the girls frolicking with the puppy were carried by celebrity and mainstream news outlets alike.

The White House also recently struck deals leading to favorable personality-driven coverage in two of the country's most prestigious newspapers -- promising the New York Times an exclusive look at the first lady's vegetable garden and the Washington Post the scoop on the puppy.

The Post, however, was beaten by an unusual rival: the celebrity website TMZ.com. Unnamed White House staff also provided some inside details on the dog to Us Weekly in time for the magazine to feature a photo spread of Bo's first trip to the White House.

For Us Weekly, this was a continuation of a relationship that began during the campaign. The magazine is owned by Jann Wenner, founder of Rolling Stone magazine and an unabashed Obama backer. Last spring, the Obamas confided with Us magazine's millions of readers that Michelle got her celebrity news from the weekly. Obama, though refusing to answer whether he wore boxers or briefs, said, "Whatever one it is, I look good in 'em!"

"They understood early on that just doing MSNBC and the New York Times, they were preaching to the choir," said Lara Cohen, news director for Us. "They wanted to reach a more broad swath of people."

From the beginning, the Obamas have searched for the proper balance between privacy and self-promotion, particularly as they began to expose their daughters to the spotlight. Several factors are at play, including the family's value as a political asset and a more idealistic desire to serve as a high-profile role model for other families -- particularly African Americans.

Last June, Malia and Sasha sat with their parents for an interview on "Access Hollywood," NBC's entertainment magazine show, talking at length about their dad's dislike of ice cream, their parents' habit of showing affection to each other, and what it's like to see their mom in celebrity magazines.

The next morning, Obama told network television reporters that the interview was a "mistake," that the family had gotten "carried away in the moment."

Still, the campaign wanted the family to be seen together. That summer, Essence hired L.A.-based photographer Kwaku Alston to photograph the Obamas in their Chicago home -- including the girls playing the piano and the family cuddling on the couch. Alston's pictures have since run in other outlets, and some of his family shots have been captured on T-shirts, mugs and key chains.

Starting with the post-election transition, White House officials sought to assert greater control over images of the first family. In January, days before Obama took office, several White House officials, including communications director Ellen Moran, met with the editors of People magazine and offered assurances that Sasha and Malia would not be kept in isolation.

The family desired privacy for the girls, the White House officials said, but they acknowledged the public interest and indicated that releasing pictures of Malia and Sasha could eliminate the market for the throngs of paparazzi that sneaked a few revealing shots of the family during their winter vacation in Hawaii.

"They are aware of the 360-degree appeal of him and his family," said Larry Hackett, managing editor of People and a participant in the January meeting with transition officials. "The family can make him more relatable, more attractive, which are good things. So they're trying to find that space between crass exploitation and satisfying the public interest."

The unwritten rule is that White House photographers cannot capture images of the girls without also putting one of their parents in the picture, and that the girls are fair game only when they are participating in public events.

The White House, however, did release photos of the girls saying goodbye to their parents on their first day of school.

Analysts believe that the Obamas' image management has so far contributed to the president's standing as he pushes an ambitious agenda.

But history shows that, over the long haul, personal popularity doesn't necessarily boost a president whose policies are unpopular or do not work. In Obama's case, the true measure of his political capital probably lies in his ability to stem rising unemployment or save the auto industry from collapse.

Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, noted that President Reagan's approval ratings soared in 1981 in his initial months in office, but that by 1982 the public had lost faith in his ability to fix the economy -- and the GOP lost seats in Congress.

"Right now, there's no such thing as too much Obama," Kohut said. "That helps, but it only goes so far."

peter.wallsten@latimes.com

faye.fiore@latimes.com

latimes.com /100days For an interactive video, graphics, a day-by-day photo gallery and more.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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