Obama's Striptease Goes On Another Day

In dragging out the announcement of his vice-presidential nominee to almost the eve of the Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama has at once demonstrated his willingness to defy conventional political expectations—and to hold the news media in his thrall while doing it.

By keeping the “who will it be?” drama going all week—and at least a couple days past when many media commentators and political operatives thought the answer would become known—Obama discarded a widespread belief in political circles that a vice president should be picked far enough in advance that a nominee can enjoy several days of massive publicity about the ticket.

Delay brings two potential risks for Obama.

As it now stands, his announcement will land on a weekend and bleed right into the nominating convention—a time when a nominee can already expect to be dominating national attention.

What’s more, by keeping expectations hanging for so long, Obama makes it harder to deliver on all the anticipation. A weeks-long strip tease, ending with a naked Joe Biden or Evan Bayh—or some other safe but unsexy choice—might prove deflating.

“The only explanation that makes sense is that he really does have a surprise pick or he's trying to convince someone to join the ticket,” said a skeptical operative who has worked for Hillary Clinton, who believed that Obama has squandered a good opportunity to set the agenda in the week before the convention.

Others were more supportive—or dismissive of the idea that the timing really matters all that much to anyone beyond reporters.

Obama strategists have said they don’t believe that in this era of compressed news cycles, it makes sense to try to ride a long wave out of the selection of a vice-presidential nominee. The first wave of positive or neutral stories will quickly turn to a second wave of negative ones.

In this case, the Obama campaign is dining out this week on stories about Republican John McCain being unable to answer—“I’ll have my staff get to you”—a question about how many houses he owns. A vice-presidential announcement would have stepped on that story.

“I’m of the view that, at this point, waiting is a good thing,” said Democratic strategist Mark Mellman. “Obviously the announcement’s going to get a lot of attention. But it’s very important to build interest for the convention. The closer the announcement is to the convention, the more newsy the convention is.”

Plus, he said, “this time you had the Olympics intruding, and not getting a sustained ride but having it peter out” as the games come to a close.

Tad Devine, John Kerry’s chief strategist in 2004, agreed that delay makes sense in the current environment. “When you have an announcement it’s immediately positive, typically,” Devine said. “Things move so quickly that the inevitable negative front would have come in 48 hours. [In this case] the convention occurring within 48 hours will cut off the inevitable scrutiny of the vice presidential pick.”

Matt Bennett, a vice president of Third Way who served as Wesley Clark's communications director in 2004, said he was confident in Obama's strategy but added that there were some downsides in holding off the decision and letting speculation run rampant.

“Every day that goes by not only do you step on your own message, but you forfeit the opportunity to have a candidate hitting four media markets a day,” he said. “Every dollar spent on candidate travel is much more highly leveraged than candidate ads, so they’re giving all that up by waiting this long."

A Republican strategist, Frank Luntz, said it was probably worth it from Obama’s perspective.

“He wanted to create buzz and that’s exactly what he did,” he said. “I’m in California Everyone’s pulling out their cell phones…hoping. They want to be the first to know.”

Although cable networks were on stakeout all day, along with the anxious cell phone community, there was no public evidence that the Obama campaign had planned on making the announcement Friday, though somehow that’s what got conveyed to much of the news media.

“There has been anticipation for days that the vice-presidential announcement would happen toward the end of the week,” said Sam Feist, CNN political director. “This has sort of become the story.”

The speculation reached full boil with a New York Times story this week saying a text message from Obama announcing his choice could come as early as Wednesday morning. That came and went. On Thursday Obama told an AP reporter he had made his choice—but wasn't going to reveal it. "Wouldn't you like to know?" he said.

On Friday, Obama aide Robert Gibbs put on a big smirk and seemingly taunted Fox News: "We may wait until Wednesday and do it right at the convention."

The gamesmanship is secondary to a candidate’s comfort, said Joe Lockhart, a White house press secretary to Bill Clinton. “You shouldn’t do it before you’re ready,” Lockhart said. “You shouldn’t push it because of a news cycle. If this is going to happen on Sunday, I think it makes a lot of sense. I guarantee you there’s no one who’s going to go to the voting booth and say, "I’m not sure about this Obama guy. They were going to do it on this day and they did it on that day.'"

“If it’s Biden,” said veteran Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, “it’s sort of like a long movie about the Civil War. We know who won. If they did it Friday evening at 5:30 they would dominate the evening news, Olympics or no Olympics. If they do it tomorrow, it will dominate tomorrow and Sunday and we’ll move on as we go into the convention….But it doesn’t matter a whit to the outcome of the election. I think we are consumed by this. Here we are sitting here talking about it.”

“The Obama campaign has been masterful in building suspense and then like any good production there has to be a payoff at the end,” said Howard Wolfson, one of Hillary Clinton’s top political advisers.

“They have done a masterful job in owning the media attention over the pick and understanding the press’s fascination and obsession with the processes,” he continued. “A lot of the success of this is based on stagecraft. The first 24 to 48 hours is the crucial period in informing the public’s conception of the pick.”

Jim Jordan, a longtime Democratic strategist, questioned whether an announcement on Monday or Tuesday would have sustained the gaze of the political media. “The attention span of the media has gotten so short now that you can’t drive a vice-presidential pick for a week,” he said.

“The story gets more and more absurd every four years. It’s underwhelming by definition,” Jordan said. “Absent an inexplicable lapse in judgment, these picks, when all is said and done, are never the most important things that happen during the campaign.”

“They might have delayed it one day because they were enjoying the McCain house meltdown,” Jordan said.

One well-known strategist was taking it all in with a shrug.

“How could it possibly make a difference?” said James Carville. “Twenty-four hours? If I were doing it, I’d do it Sunday. I’d create a whole bunch of stories going into the convention.”