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Obama Pitches to the Press

With his first major initiative in danger of sinking, President Barack Obama last week moved to enlarge his already broad profile and sharpen his message, pitching his stimulus bill aggressively to the media — and in the process making progress toward keeping campaign promises of accessibility and transparency.

While saying he will continue bipartisan outreach, Obama has also taken a more traditional approach in the past two weeks, slamming GOP opponents of the measure for rigid adherence to pro-tax-cut ideology and virtually accusing them of failing to join his effort to “change Washington.”

In addition to suddenly scheduling three trips outside the Beltway last week, Obama has granted the type of access to the media that was often present during the transition but missing in the first two weeks of his presidency.

Obama held a prime-time news conference Feb. 9, offering detailed answers to questions — though as a consequence taking fewer queries than he might have. The session was preceded a few days earlier by an unusual procession of five network interviews, staged back to back in the Oval Office.

The press conference was followed by an appearance midweek on ABC’s “Nightline” and a sit-down with 16 reporters from regional news outlets.

Not only is Obama conducting a media blitz, but top advisers are being dispatched to trumpet his message and submit to questioning. National Economic Council Director Larry Summers stopped by two Sunday talk shows on Feb. 8, and Vice President Joseph Biden has also sat for a few interviews.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel hosted close to a dozen print reporters in his office Thursday evening for a 45-minute session. Conducting the meeting was challenging, since the multitasking Emanuel took a call during the gathering.

The White House suggested that Emanuel’s session with the press was only the start of such encounters.

But the timing of the appearances has not always been fortuitous. Obama’s session with the networks was meant as a forum for him to pound away on behalf of the stimulus. But it happened to occur the day former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) withdrew his nomination to be Health and Human Services secretary, prompting a focus that the White House didn’t need and an Obama admission that he “screwed up.”

Emanuel’s get-together occurred just hours after word came that Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) would rather not be Commerce secretary, forcing Emanuel to do a walk-through of the withdrawal that took precious PR moments away from the planned victory dance for the stimulus.

“No good deed goes unpunished,” one White House reporter quipped.

Martha Kumar, a White House communications expert based at Towson University in Maryland, said some of the early reticence to put Obama in the line of reporters’ fire could have resulted from the general need to adapt to new surroundings and grapple with the exigencies of a presidential press strategy, which is quite different from that of a presidential candidate.

The campaign featured a daily message and a singular goal of getting elected. The issues a president must grapple with and the messages he must convey are more diverse and fluid. The audience is not just the voting public, but also Congress, the Washington community and various Washington-based organizations, Kumar said.

While the imperative in a campaign is to get on TV, print reporters and the Washington media become more important for a president as he tries to reach various localities and Washington constituencies. And coverage of Obama was so intense during the first two weeks that he might not have needed to invite in inquisitors to make his point.

It’s also possible that staff was trying to protect a brand-new president from early gaffes as he warmed up to his job. But Kumar says such errors by a president are unusual.

“Advisers tend to worry about the possibility of making a mistake more than reality requires,” she said. “In reality, presidents generally don’t make mistakes at press conferences, and if they do, the public usually doesn’t care.”

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