Obama’s TV push jolts presidential tradition

Television Critic

Let the pundits wail and gnash their teeth about federally funded fat cat bonuses. Let the columnists dissect the stimulus package, explaining, with scholarly harrumphs, why it is or isn’t the return of the New Deal, why the new administration is hewing dangerously left, perilously right or just altogether lost. President Barack Obama is not a product of media opinion or analysis; he’s a child of television, and although he’s not above writing a widely distributed op-ed piece rallying all nations to the G-20 summit, it is in television he trusts.

In the last two weeks alone, he surprised the traditional Washington press corps by passing on its annual Gridiron Club dinner only to make unprecedented appearances on ESPN, where he picked his NCAA bracket favorites, and “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” where he committed his biggest presidential gaffe to date before returning to “60 Minutes” for a tough-questions interview with Steve Kroft. Tuesday night, he held his second prime-time news conference in the last 65 days, during which he not only answered policy questions with bountiful detail but also offered a glimpse of the elusive Obama temper. When a reporter continued to needle him about his “delayed” response to the AIG bonuses, Obama shut him down: “It took me a couple of days because I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak, OK?”

Not everyone approves of all this exposure, of course. Many critics, professional and not, see Obama’s high visibility as a sign of narcissism or ineptitude. They complain that the man needs to stop campaigning and start being president. But this is, apparently, exactly how Obama defines being president.


Unlike the previous administration, and perhaps because of it, he seems to consider it part of his job to maintain the conversation he began with the American people at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Television launched him from Chicago politician to presidential candidate, and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

In all his recent appearances, the president was able to display his talent for lucidly explaining complex issues while exuding the calm and easy dignity that Americans watched him develop during the presidential race. Distilled now to a resolutely optimistic and wonky hepcat charm, his on-screen persona at its best plays to the American desire for a real-guy president a la Michael Douglas in “An American President.” At its worst, it fills its owner with the they-love-me euphoria that led to the blunder on “Leno.”

When Obama, in an attempt to be self-deprecating, compared his modest bowling ability to the Special Olympics, critics fell over themselves to point out that this is why presidents should stick to State of the Unions and the occasional news conference. Though it would be surprising if Obama and his team paid any heed, it will be interesting to see how they download this new information (“limit self-deprecating asides to self”) into the ever-evolving hologram of the new-media president. The one who understands that part of his job is to keep the populace engaged, as he did on Leno’s couch by comparing Washington to “American Idol” -- “except everyone is Simon Cowell.” The one who is unapologetically redefining the word “presidential.”

Certainly, Obama isn’t the first to tinker with the image or to circumvent the traditional gatekeepers. As the first real television president, John Kennedy managed to make even civil service seem glamorous. Bill Clinton tried to replace press conferences with town hall meetings, though that ended rather disastrously, with very little national resonance and a super-miffed Washington press corps.

And then there was “the Great Communicator,” Ronald Reagan, who brought a movie star’s savvy to his appearances, employing big-screen backdrops, gentle humor and a grandfatherly tone to speak over the naysayers and directly to the folks eager for morning in America. Pre-dating them all was Franklin “Fireside Chat” Roosevelt, who used radio as Obama is using TV -- to his best advantage. Radio brought him into American homes on a regular basis and suited Roosevelt’s calming patrician tones.

But video killed the radio star years ago. These days, if it didn’t happen on TV, if it can’t be found in highlight form on YouTube or a network website, it might as well have not happened at all. Which is why Obama sent a video statement to Iran last week, as opposed to a masterfully written letter.

Appearances on “Leno,” ESPN and even “60 Minutes” allow the president to control his image and his message in a way the traditional news conference, with its barrage of disparate questions and personalities, does not. Still, many find the act of hanging out on Leno’s couch or showing up on ESPN less than presidential. Historically, part of the job is to hold the office, and oneself, above the common touch; to offer the illusion that though the shirt sleeves may be figuratively rolled up, they aren’t literally because, you know, the jacket is still on.

If Obama decides to make late-night appearances a regular part of his schedule, he will need to curb his tendency toward sarcasm, which doesn’t play well in a president. But overall, the “it’s just not presidential” jibe is hard to defend when a self-parodying appearance on “Saturday Night Live” is now as important to a campaign as taking New Hampshire or Iowa.

Part of the change Obama seems to consider his mandate is establishing a more intimate and equitable relationship with the citizenry. Short of his own Facebook page, television is as close as it gets. On the “60 Minutes” interview, he showed off his daughter’s new swing set (being careful to explain how it was not paid for by taxpayers) and even pointed out the windows of the living quarters, which can’t have made the Secret Service very happy.

It’s as if he were inviting Americans to imagine what it would be like if they somehow became president. He prefers basketball to golf, never seems to know who gets to keep what pen and his first big, real fight as president was to keep hold of his BlackBerry. It isn’t too hard to imagine him jammin’ past the Lincoln bedroom like Hugh Grant’s prime minister in “Love, Actually,” except Obama would probably be wearing ear buds.

Put it all together and he is the ultimate Ready for Prime Time President -- an American leader in the era of reality television. He came of age in front of cameras and digital screens, and he understands not just their power, but their nature. Americans these days want to make up their own minds, whether it’s about the next American Idol or what the president’s responsibility is toward those outrageous bonuses. Obama understands the definition of reality “as seen on TV,” where the most important thing is your brand. The Obama brand is about calm amid chaos, strength through humility, and transparency through television.

On your screen, in your living room, he’s just a regular guy -- someone you might know, the parent of one of your daughter’s friends. Except that, oh yeah, he’s also the president.