President Barack Obama is personally leading a White House blitz of network Sunday shows, reenergizing one of the most traditional of Washington platforms at a time when his agenda is facing rising scrutiny from capital insiders.
Obama’s communications strategy has turned heads for its reliance on YouTube and edgy social networking tools.
But this weekend’s outings—an array of administration heavies led by Obama on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” along with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on both NBC’s “Meet the Press” and ABC’s “This Week” and Defense Secretary Robert Gates on “Fox News Sunday”—have highlighted a lesser-noticed element of the Obama strategy.
He is showing that the Sunday shows, which once looked like the old gray mare of Washington journalism, still have plenty of kick.
White Houses tend to pick a theme for the weekend, so there’s some risk in having so many top officials in prominent venues, where they are sure to be asked about very different subjects. And an inescapable storyline will be how Geithner does, after good reviews this week and shaky ones before that.
"While some criticize him for trying to do too many things at once, for the host of a Sunday show, it's an embarrassment of riches," said Chris Wallace, host of "Fox News Sunday."
That makes this weekend an especially vivid example of the weekly scramble for Sunday show bookings. It is a classic Washington ritual, in which all White Houses seek to use their leverage to maximize control and minimize risk. The journalists who run the Sunday shows have exactly the opposite incentive—to loosen White House message discipline and increase the chances the shows will make news.
Obama’s West Wing has week-long conversations with the anchors and senior producers of all the shows. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs has the biggest say in who will go where, in consultation with chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, senior adviser David Axelrod, plus the communications and press staffs.
But the Sunday anchors have leverage of their own. It’s a platform that still offers a public official lots of ability to make news and drive the Washington and even national conversations all day Sunday and usually well into Monday morning. The key is the anchor’s ability to get disciplined officials to say something fresh and surprising.
“This Week” host George Stephanopoulos said the Saturday before a show is “study day.” He usually works from home at his computer, with his briefing books. On game day, he shows up at 4 a.m.—five hours before the taping—then goes into the interview with an outline he has written. He said his job “is to imagine what everyone, sitting at home with their cup of coffee, wants to know—and to make sure I get it.”
“Our job is to bear down on the news of the week and the positions of the policymakers—probe them, press them, challenge them, so people understand better, at the end of the hour, what’s happening in Washington and what it means to them.”
This weekend’s bookings are a window into how the White House sees its challenges.
On the eve of a trip to Europe, having just announced a new strategy in Afghanistan and laboring to win support for his economic and budget plans, Obama wants to project himself as a calm multi-tasker.
Geithner needs to demonstrate competence and command after a week in which his steadier performance in announcing a banking reform plan muted calls for his resignation. Obama aides said he is spending the weekend in “prep” sessions with White House and Treasury officials.
Gates, the only cabinet holdover from President Bush, wants to convey his wholehearted support for the president’s approach to Afghnistan during an appearance on "Fox News Sunday."
Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. Central commander, responsible for Iraq and Afghanistan, is stopping by CNN’s “State of the Union," along with Richard Holbrooke, the administration's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Nor is this weekend an aberration. Obama’s White House has seized on the shows to roll out top guests nearly every week as part of a philosophy of pushing the president’s message in all sorts of formats—hard and soft, classic and edgy, predictable and surprising.
President George W. Bush spent his final years in office on defense, so the White House went weeks at a time without allowing a big name in the Executive Branch to come on as a guest. And Bush officials were so familiar and on-message that sometimes the shows refused to book them. One Sunday, all the shows took a pass on then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
By contrast, this administration is "very aggressive in trying to flood the zone as part of a determined political effort to set the tone and tenor of the debate,” said CNN’s John King, who interviewed Obama for the debut edition of "State of the Union" just before the inauguration.
"The Obama agenda is the dominant drama in Washington," King said. "So, most weeks, it is smart journalism to lead with the people they want out there, and ask the questions people around the country are debating at home and at work. ... The people who made the difference in this election now want to keep an eye on whether they are getting what they voted for."
Asked about the risk of mixed messages coming from so many of its top names fanning out on the same Sunday, a White House official said: “We just don’t have the luxury of taking on one thing right now. With the global community and the American people learning about the new Afghanistan policy, it’s important to make sure that people understand it, as well as where things stand on the economy and where we are going forward.”
While Geithner is cramming, Gates is taking a more casual approach to getting ready, since he’s used to the public eye from his years as Director of Central Intelligence from 1991 until 1993.
Petraeus is gong on CNN with the intention of “providing cover to Obama and being supportive,” according to an official close to him. “The last thing he wants to do is make news,” the official said.
Obama’s team has been closely attuned to the Sunday shows going back to October 2006, when he used a “Meet the Press” appearance to say he had begun thinking about running for president.
“They see it as a chance to lay their thoughts out there in a longer form and fashion, and be able to explain things,” said Betsy Fischer, executive producer of “Meet the Press.” “They’re all about getting their plan out there. They’re in that campaign of selling their various solutions to problems.”
In the informal rotation the White House keeps to avoid weekly chaos in negotiations with the Sunday shows, it was CBS’s “turn” for Obama, who had appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” shortly after the election and on ABC’s “This Week” right before the inauguration.
Fox's Wallace said he is frustrated by White House control over guests, and notes that his is the only show Obama has stiffed since the Democratic convention.
"First, they said, 'Well, it's the post-convention rotation,'" Wallace said. "Then they said, 'It's the post-election rotation.' Then we began 'the post-inauguration rotation.' We fully expect in a couple of weeks, they will begin their 'post-Easter rotation,' which means starting all over again, and not including Fox."
Referring to a weekly segment the show used until Obama ppeared on "Fox News Sunday" during last year's primaries, Wallace added slyly: "The famous 'Obama Watch' is being dusted off and may be taken out of the closet."
Obama taped his office in the Oval Office at around 5 p.m. Friday, giving the interview extra exposure with a clip on the "CBS Evening News with Katie Couric."
Gates is also appearing on tape, so he can have Sunday off.
Geithner is doing the weekend’s high-wire act, taping an interview with Stephanopoulos around 8:15 a.m., then riding four miles across Northwest Washington for another 15 or 20 minutes of questioning by David Gregory.
Rehearsing how to make planned news—and how to avoid making unplanned news—is something of an art form for the media handlers of senior officials.
Adam Levine, a deputy press secretary in the Bush White House, specialized in creating what he called "game-time conditions” in prep sessions for administration officials. He polished his own impersonations of specific Sunday hosts, training himself to emulate Stephanopoulos, CBS's Bob Schieffer, as well as the late Tim Russert of NBC and Tony Snow of Fox News.