Opinion: President Obama’s non-visit to New Jersey; Inside the revealing story that won’t happen today

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Today President Obama was to have gone to central New Jersey to talk about the economy. Part of the administration’s ongoing sales pitch about the things finally improving more than a year after the signing of the $787 billion economic stimulus legislation, despite a stubborn 9.7% unemployment rate.

Obama will not be in central New Jersey today. The trip, likely involving a factory tour, brief chat with workers and spoken remarks for assembled TV cameras, was quietly canceled over the weekend. Because the actual Jersey destination and activity was never announced, there aren’t many fences to repair. And it will likely reappear on a future White House journey.


But the incident -- the actual story that won’t happen for now -- is also revealing in how any president uses his schedule, powerful presence and words to shape and control the news coverage of himself and, theoretically, the public’s ongoing impression of his work.

The media must go with the president. It’s working, so it must report what....

...he’s doing. If the president stays on the administration’s strategic message of the day -- say, the economy is turning the corner -- and doesn’t get distracted by questions on some other hot topic, the day can be deemed a news success, even if it only involves driving intense regional news coverage.

Although it hasn’t yet seemed to improve his sagged job approval, Obama has been very active in his travels outside the Oval Office in his almost 16 months as president, spending two days in the Midwest just last week.

Last Friday the White House issued this statement: ‘On Wednesday, May 5, 2010 President Obama will travel to Central New Jersey and discuss the economy. More details regarding the visit, including press credentialing information, will be released in the coming days.’

Such PR forays are usually envisioned one to two weeks out, each designed with a simple message to be delivered. Each trip though requires complex advance work both by political and security teams. The political people will scout the factory tour route usually with instructions to avoid places requiring the president to wear a hardhat, which along with those goofy bike helmets, he does not like.

The team will identify a few employees to talk with the president, check their backgrounds for immigration status and child support delinquencies, brief the company execs on protocol, arrange for top-notch sound equipment and lighting, risers for the TV cameras to see over any crowd and importantly arrange the proper backdrop for the president’s remarks. They even carry cans of women’s hair spray, which dull the glaring sheen on those large banners often hanging over the stage.

Ideally the factory backdrop involves immense (but silent) industrial equipment that will impress but not distract viewers during the eight- or nine-second sound bite the prep teams hope to garner for their boss.

The security team will plan the main travel route from the presidential aircraft, plus probably two alternates.

Only those on a Secret Service radio frequency will know which ones are real. They’ll instruct local police where to station officers, alleys to monitor, etc.

If everything goes well, no one will ever hear or see anything about the advance teams, which will be enroute to the president’s next trip-stop before he’s back in the White House.

The New Jersey economy message fits with the administration’s effort to shape a national sense of economic improvement in time for the crucial midterm elections Nov. 2. Polls show the economy as voters’ major concern ever since Obama’s inauguration. But instead he quickly got off on the healthcare kick, feeding a sense of inattention that cost Democrats in November and January’s special Senate election in Massachusetts.

But last Friday what else was happening? The evolving enormity of the Gulf oil spill was becoming apparent, raising in the minds of alert Obama strategists the awful specter of Hurricane Katrina’s political aftermath for George W. Bush. Already grumbling grew on the Gulf coast about the Democratic administration’s federal response.

How better to snuff that guff than with a presidential visit that would dominate the national news on a slow spring Sunday?

Instead of being an opportunity to advance Obama’s economy argument, suddenly that already-announced midweek New Jersey trip loomed as potential proof to critics that the boss wasn’t paying adequate attention to this real environmental crisis in a region notoriously quick to loudly blame others for its disasters and local lack of preparation.

New Jersey was canceled, though locals didn’t learn until Saturday afternoon and the White House announcement was delayed until Sunday.

A Louisiana trip was laid on for Sunday. The advance teams were redeployed and their short prep time showed with the president having to drive instead of helicopter from New Orleans to a Delta Coast Guard briefing and then, as he spoke to reporters outdoors, be drenched in a downpour.

The president was also seen taking off for a disaster scene tour in a chopper. But winds were such and the threat of fog possible that the president only saw the ordinary Louisiana coast.

After all that travel, logistics and talk, he never spotted one drop of oil.

The good news for him is twofold: He was seen caring about the incident.

And he wasn’t seen looking uselessly out a plane window as Bush was.

Aides were quick to describe how useful the tour was for Obama to see something for himself. He did get out the main message-quote about BP being responsible for every dime, even though there’s a $75 million limit on a causative party’s costs.

Local officials were quoted as appreciative of his presence which, truth be told, did absolutely nothing to stop the oil, advance the recovery or mitigate any damage beyond that potentially to the president’s image if he hadn’t gone.

The White House press office is releasing regular reports on the president’s phone calls to the area, briefings he’s getting, actions by other agencies. They learned well from Bush’s mistakes, including his well-intentioned but strategically stupid flyover of New Orleans.

When asked about New Jersey, press secretary Robert Gibbs made the excuse that advance teams were too strapped to do both Louisiana and New Jersey trips close together.

If true, that’s a very rare admission by a presidential spokesman (and useful knowledge for opponents) that the current White House administration has inadequate resources to do everything that the world’s most powerful chief executive might want.

Not surprisingly, Gibbs said nothing about the real reason for the cancellation: Strategic concern over competing political messages from the two trips.

This morning President Obama will be out of public view, getting his regular briefings and meeting with Sens. Jon Kyl and Orrin Hatch. Tonight, there’s a White House Cinco de Mayo fete planned, or as he called it last year ‘Cinco de Cuatro.’ Likely no one, except The Ticket, will talk about the New Jersey story that wasn’t. So no distractions there.

Now, if the White House really wanted to get the media and public attention off the messy oil spill and the New York bomber, Obama’s advisers would pick late today or perhaps Thursday to leak to a favored reporter and then announce his new Supreme Court nominee.

That would quickly and inevitably reshape the Sunday morning TV discussions too. It would also all look as smooth and seamlessly sequential as trees budding this time of year. Or he could ride the aborted bombing story a couple more days and do the court message come Monday.

And on the vast invisible presidential message machine goes, White House week after White House week.

Related item:

Obama’s amazing ability to feign interest in stuff

Obama visits the Gulf oil spill: Fly over or soil his shoes?

-- Andrew Malcolm

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