Did you miss President Barack Obama the other day discoursing on college basketball on ESPN? Then perhaps you caught him instead Thursday night chatting with Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show.”
Wondered how the first family stays in such fine shape in the White House? Michelle Obama described their morning workouts earlier this month in People magazine. Last winter, before taking office, the president-elect and his wife also shared their thoughts on the family’s eating habits for Parents magazine.
From CNN to Men’s Journal, Obama has decided to make himself the Everywhere President.
In the midst of a severe recession, with two wars overseas, a new president is unavoidably going to be at the center of the news universe. Obama has taken this intense public interest to a new level — encouraging a highly personalized, uncommonly intimate presidential image.
As communications strategy, the idea seems to be that Obama is the Oprah of politics: People will buy his policies because he is on the cover. But a personality-driven presidency does have its risks.
Part of the dignity of the Oval Office comes from a sense of distance, says Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, and that makes what Obama is doing tricky. “He’s trying to metaphorically remove the moat from around the presidency, but that can be a dicey kind of thing,” he says. “People can be really fickle about this kind of stuff. It is a tough balancing act.”
Different presidents have struck this balance in different ways. George W. Bush did not seem interested in (or, by the unpopular end of his presidency, capable of) creating a cult of personality. Bill Clinton, by contrast, surrendered any mystique when prosecutors in the Monica Lewinsky case gave the public a far more intimate view of his personal life than he ever wanted.
For this president, Obama’s “charm and glamour” give him an opportunity that a lot of presidents don’t have — but one that he’s got to take carefully, said former Clinton White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers. When a president is in the public eye too often, she says, “at some point, people stop listening.” And right now, she adds, Obama’s ubiquity may also remind the public that he’s got a shallow bench: It “underscores that he doesn’t have the team of surrogates that he needs yet.”
Personal-branding expert William Arruda agrees that betting the success of his policies so heavily on the strength of his personality is definitely a gamble. “There’s a risk because he is so visible; he’s become the face of everything that happens,” he says. In that situation, a wrong step could have far-reaching consequences — especially if there is no one else in the administration visible enough to take the fall. “Could it bring his whole brand down? I think that depends on the issue,” he says — and whether it strikes at the heart of what Obama stands for.
For example, Arruda says, the public forgave Martha Stewart’s stock snafu because her transgression was not a violation of what people love about her. “If we learned that she didn’t know how to make papier-mâché snowflakes, or that none of the recipes were actually hers, or that she stole them from someone else,” he says, “her brand would not have survived.”
Thompson says the strategy’s long-term success is a sort of chicken-and-egg proposition: Obama’s presidency will lean heavily on his popular appeal — and his reception in the popular culture will depend on how successful he is as a president. “We will keep liking him if people get a sense that there is a forward trajectory to the positive. If not, not only could it become a disadvantage, but each of those appearanes gets a target drawn on it.”
The Republicans have already started aiming at it. During a news conference Thursday, Senate GOP leaders took shots at Obama for appearing on ESPN to fill out his NCAA tournament bracket and doing “The Tonight Show” in the midst of an economic crisis.
Of course, the Republicans attacked Obama as a “celebrity” during the presidential race, and that didn’t get them very far then, either. Obama may be everywhere now, but it seems he hasn’t worn out his welcome with the public. Although Gallup’s latest poll shows that the president’s approval rating has declined a bit since his Inauguration, it is still higher than either President Bill Clinton’s or President George W. Bush’s was at this point in their administrations. “He may be the guy who makes this work forever,” says Myers. “I think the folks in the White House are aware of the potential risks, but at the moment, he’s still effective. It’s still working.”
Obama hardly needs publicity or even to “humanize” his image, as some presidents have. So why does he continue to court this kind of attention, even after Us Weekly magazine has already told us “Why Barack Loves Her” and People has shown us exclusive photos of “the Obamas at Home” and dished all about the family’s life in the White House?
Perhaps because some footage of him filling in his bracket might help him build trust and personal capital with an audience he’s less likely to connect with through his weekly radio address.
“Just look at ESPN,” says Variety Managing Editor Ted Johnson, who writes the Wilshire & Washington political blog. “Those are the armchair politicians and judges that they’re trying to reach. Those are probably the harder people to convince to sign on to his budget plan or his economic plan.”
Likewise, says Johnson, his plan to appear with Jay Leno was not about producing a “sock-it-to-me” moment. It was more likely an acknowledgement of how much sway Leno and his peers hold over the way the public perceives politics and policymaking these days, as well as an opportunity to take the battle to the enemy. “A lot of outrage over AIG and the economy is being defined and fueled by these late-night talk shows, so it makes some sense that he would go on there to address it,” he said.
And indeed, while the president's "Tonight Show" appearance will probably be remembered most for his "Special Olympics" slip, Obama did spend much of his time with Leno talking about the economy. He said he was "stunned" by the bonuses paid out by AIG, and he came to the defense of his Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner.
There is, of course, the chance that doing something like late-night TV might look frivolous, particularly when there is so much serious news afoot. And the most important thing for the president to remember about his celebrity, says publicist R.J. Garis, is that he is not one.
“When it becomes just a ‘it’s fun to be famous’ or humorous appearance — that can degrade respect for a government official,” says Garis, whose company specializes in mainstream popular media. “They are not pop stars, and it is inappropriate and risky for them to try and maintain a pop-star-type image. Too much of that and people stop taking them seriously.”
But Thompson says Obama can do pop-culture appearances precisely because he has “gravitas to spare.”
“He never appears to be one of those guys who’s on the verge of making balloon animals,” he says.
In addition, notes Myers, he picks arenas in which he’s comfortable and where he knows the turf, which allows him to be genuine. “When he’s at the NBA All-Star Game doing the half-time thing, eople know he’s watching the game. He’s authentically interested in the mediums which he chooses.”
Arruda says Obama is “perhaps the best example of personal branding we have today.” Echoing Myers, he notes that effective branding is “based in authenticity, and the thing that makes [Obama] so successful and so confident is that he is being who he is.”
Still, Thompson notes, even for Obama, ubiquity has its limits. Whatever you do, he says, you want to avoid the moment when the public begins to wonder why you’re asking if they’re ready for some football when you’re supposed to be running the country. “You don’t want to give the impression,” he says, “that you’re spending all your time talking to us.”