My First Trip With The Obama White House

President Obama's Hotel in Las Vegas:
(CBS)


The Press Hotel:
(CBS)

LAS VEGAS -- It's been an eye-opening first trip with the Obama White House.

First rule: press cheese. There's a cheese platter that greets you on the press charter that is to die for. (And diet after.)

And everyone gets three seats to themselves. There's catering throughout the flight. There's a movie.

The fact that some members of the media actually watched the movie should have been my first clue -- that we all got three seats to ourselves was my second. This was not expected to be a news-making trip. Rather, this was strategically planned that it wouldn't make news, and some White House veterans had already clued in to that, and stayed home.

But I'll get to that.

President Obama took all headlines out of the first stop, in Las Vegas, by making his historic first supreme court nomination known back at the White House, just hours before we were to hit the tarmac. Judge Sonia Sotomayor simultaneously stole the headlines, and kept the press on message.

This three-day jaunt out west was allegedly supposedly to be about ginning up support for Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who hasn't been doing well in his own local polls. A Las Vegas Review Journal poll said 45 percent of those surveyed would vote for another candidate in November 2010.

There was a star-studded fundraiser in Las Vegas at Caesar's on Wednesday night, featuring the president, Reid, Bette Midler, Sheryl Crow, etc., which did end up earning Reid an estimated two-million dollars for his reelection run.

Now, every president does this -- uses presidential prestige to raise cold hard cash for Democrats (or Republicans) in need. But it always offers the opposing side a chance to strike back, with allegations of influence peddling and crass panhandling etc.

Yet, there was no air time available for searching analysis or GOP allegations that Mr. Obama was using the power of the presidency, to help save the Senate Majority leader's bacon, thereby ensuring the Democrats' near-complete stranglehold on both houses of Congress.

The Sotomayor announcement made sure of that.

Add to that: Mr. Obama's press secretary Robert Gibbs stayed home to continue making news, doing the rounds on the talk shows about Sotomayor. Ouch. We correspondents on the trip looked at each other and said, "Hmmm, wonder what we'll file on?"

The New York Times guy didn't even bother filing for the paper, only the web.

Then, the White House communications strategists/handlers did it again.

Gibbs gave a daily press briefing today -- back at the White House. And just as his boss was set to arrive from the photovoltaic cell tour at Nellis Air Base.

That's not done, I'm told by the traveling press corps. They made their displeasure known to the White House staff here (not that they could do much about it). You don't brief the press who stayed behind, and ignore those who chose to shell out to travel with the commander in chief.

So, they gave us an audio feed of Gibbs to keep up with our White House brethren.

Fun fact: The senior wire person in the front row at the White House wrapped Gibbs up in time that at least he didn't step on the speech his boss was about to give on the other side of the country. Want to know when the briefing is over? Watch AP reporter Jennifer Loven. As part of White House tradition, when she says "Thank you, Robert," it's done. Sometimes when the media are annoyed and think he's been speaking too long, they nudge her. "C'mon, tell him to wrap."

Back to Nevada … Gibbs has just finished back in Washington. Cue Mr. Obama arriving at the air hangar where we are waiting for him, after his ten-minute tour of the Nellis Air Force Base solar panel array.

He spoke before a cheering crowd of 400 troops, and Nevada political glitterati, all gathered in the toasty hangar under the blazing midday sun. He gave his speech with solar cells arrayed behind him, in front of a huge American flag -- the message being, green technology is patriotic.

(Another fun fact: the solar cells provide 25 percent of the power for the 12,000 people living on this base, and are the White House's chosen reason for coming here. But as my colleague Chuck Todd from NBC just quipped to us all, just wait to see how long it takes Senator Reid to turn the video of this joint appearance into a re-election campaign ad.)

Mr. Obama had a great line linking his drive for energy independence and the war on terror, saying "We help to fund both sides of the war on terror because of our addiction to oil."

This line was not in his originally prepared remarks. Perhaps he added the term, given the audience? Four-hundred military folk, and the politically conservative Nevada public watching via local news stations?

Nevada is described as a state in political transition -- Republican governor, one Republican and one Democratic Senator each, and it voted for Mr. Obama. Military folks I know take issue with the very thought the White House would abandon the term "war on terror" -- and here Mr Obama made sure to embrace it and link it to one of the signature causes of his administration.

You probably won't see that on TV tonight, but the term will "make air" in those circles. Again, smartly done, in terms of political messaging.

What did you NOT see Mr. Obama talk about today? Today's potentially ugly headline: General Motors, which is reportedly going into bankruptcy, leaving the U.S. Government/taxpayer holding an estimated 70 percent of the company.

The president ignored questions shouted from the pool during the photovoltaic tour -- which was our only chance to get him on record, because...hey, we may be traveling "with the president," but that doesn't mean you actually get to see him.

So only Gibbs, back at the White House earlier, was our voice from the administration today on the record answering that sticky question -- and that's the only person you'll see and hear rebroadcast on the cable channels this afternoon, and tonight on the evening newscasts.

Mr. Obama did speak of the success of his first hundred days of his economic recovery plan, in the scripted, teleprompted speech. But he won't be on record today about the less-than-successful initial attempt to bail out GM, which now may necessitate bankruptcy.

Mr. Obama quipped at the end of his speech here at Nellis (and before glad handing the mostly military crowd, including kissing a baby), "What happens in Vegas, shouldn't stay in Vegas." He was referring to the success of photovoltaic technology.

But since his top strategists seemed to have planned this masterfully, any bad headlines that might have emerged out of the Vegas side of this trip won't make it out of this town.


(CBS)
Kimberly Dozier is a correspondent with CBS Evening News.
  • Kimberly Dozier

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