"That's the Chicago Way"
In the days before President Obama's last news conference, as the networks weighed whether to give up a chunk of their precious prime time, Rahm Emanuel went straight to the top.
Rather than calling ABC, the White House chief of staff phoned Bob Iger, chief executive of parent company Disney. Instead of contacting NBC, Emanuel went to Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric. He also spoke with Les Moonves, the chief executive of CBS, the company spun off from Viacom.
Whether this amounted to undue pressure or plain old Chicago arm-twisting, Emanuel got results: the fourth hour of lucrative network time for his boss in six months. But network executives have been privately complaining to White House officials that they cannot afford to keep airing these sessions in the current economic downturn.
The networks "absolutely" feel pressured, says Paul Friedman, CBS's senior vice president: "It's an enormous financial cost when the president replaces one of those prime-time hours. The news divisions also have mixed feelings about whether they are being used."
While it is interesting to see how a president handles questions, Friedman says, "there was nothing" at the July 22 session, which was dominated by health-care questions. "There hardly ever is these days, because there's so much coverage all the time."
Had Obama not answered the last question that evening -- declaring that the Cambridge police had acted "stupidly" in arresting Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home -- the news conference would have been almost totally devoid of news. And that raises questions about whether the sessions have become mainly a vehicle for Obama to repeat familiar messages.
Mark Whitaker, NBC's Washington bureau chief, says Obama "is at risk of overexposure" and suggests the sessions are losing their novelty.
"Every time a president holds a press conference there is potential for news to be made, as he did, probably to his regret, with his comments on the Gates case," Whitaker says. Still, he says, "we would feel better" if White House officials "were approaching us with the sense that they had something new to say, rather than that they just wanted to continue a dialogue with the American people. There are other ways of continuing that dialogue than taking up an hour of prime time." ...
The financial stakes are considerable. ABC, CBS and NBC have given up as much as $40 million in advertising revenue to carry this year's East Room events. "We lose more than $3 million a show," Moonves told Mediaweek. The Fox broadcast network has declined to carry the last two Obama sessions.
Every president exercises considerable control over his encounters with reporters, picking on selected journalists and deflecting questions he doesn't like. But Obama's discursive style has also tended to depress the news value of the sessions.
He began the last one with an eight-minute opening statement. His answer to the first question, including a follow-up, lasted more than seven minutes. All told, the lengthy responses allowed time for only 10 reporters to be recognized. And Obama's professorial style of explaining policy at length, rather than offering punchy sound bites, may serve him well, but rarely yields dramatic headlines.
One result: The audience is gradually dwindling. The last presser drew 24 million viewers, a significant number but a 50 percent decline from Obama's first such event in February.
He is overexposed, and he's acting like he doesn't care. More than likely, he doesn't. He is Barry Obama, putz-in-chief; the messiah of the Democrat party that so many stupid people fell for in the election. Post-partisan? Not bloody likely. Post-racial? Don't make us laugh. A promise-keeper? The list of broken promises keeps growing, and includes this doozy where the administration is admitting that the middle class will take it on the chin in taxes for health care reform. And no amount of press coverage can change that.
But this is how this particular White House works. If they don't get their way, they send out the thugs. Rahm Emanuel is exactly that. As White House chief of staff it falls to him to make sure the president gets his way, whether it's with the press or with Congress. Last week there were reports of Emanuel pressuring those in the House to get their version of health care reform out of committee. They did, and the credit goes to Emanuel. That's not the first time that Emanuel has applied pressure to those that stand in opposition to the president. He is, literally, Barry's Frank Nitti without the tommy gun.
People figured that when they voted for Barry, the wounds would heal, the oceans would recede, and all would be well with the world. No politician can ever be held to what they promise. They lie for a living. And Barry and Company are no different. The only difference are the tactics used, and in this case -- for this White House -- the Chicago Way is what they rely on most.