James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Archive for March 21st, 2009

To Obamas, a reminder that familiarity can breed contempt

Posted by James McPherson on March 21, 2009

Barack and Michelle Obama have seemingly been everywhere lately, with him even popping up on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno (where he managed to say something stupid in an ill-advised effort to be funny) and on the cover of Vanity Fair (though with a recycled photo), and her showing up on the cover of Vogue and as in a comic book.

As Barack tries to implement an Franklin D. Roosevelt-style remaking of government, Michelle plants an Eleanor Roosevelt-style “victory garden.” Perhaps trying to boost the idea that he is the reincarnation of Abraham Lincoln (the first president ever photographed and perhaps the first to actively promote his own image), Obama has seen his own photographic image splashed everywhere imaginable.

Yet despite the Obama blitz, polls this week show a couple of interesting things. In addition to those that show the president’s approval rating slipping somewhat, one survey says most Americans now think that Obama is “trying to do too much.”

In truth, I think both responses show something else: not that Obama is doing too much, but that he is talking  too much (and not through answering meaningful questions from the news media). Obama’s taking time to address the comments of such inane and irrelevant critics as Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney are perhaps the most troubling examples, especially since the fact is that neither such criticism nor the polls are relevant at this point (one of the relatively few things that George W. Bush seemed to understand about governing).

Positive numbers may make it slightly easier for Obama to get gutless Congressional Democrats to pass some things, but the only current real benefits of those surveys are that they keep pollsters employed, conservatives hopeful, and political junkies entertained. With several big issues to tackle in the coming months (and tackle them, he should), Obama’s approval rating means almost nothing for most of the next two years–and then mostly only to other Democrats who will be running for election.

What will matter is the shape of the economy, and perhaps the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, months from now. Most Americans are willing to give the president they just elected a chance–after all, they waited out the Bush years without storming the White House, indicating a certain level of patience.

What happens over the next few years, not what happens in the first 100 days of the Obama presidency, will determine whether he is later viewed as an FDR or a Herbert Hoover. And there is no denying that, like FDR with radio and Lincoln with photography, Obama is great at using modern communication technology. Even Republicans recognize that skill and are trying to catch up.

But just because you have multiple ways to reach people doesn’t mean you should use them all, at least not all the time. As conservative B. Jay Cooper wrote in a column that appeared in my morning newspaper today, it’s time for the Obama adminstration to stop “running a campaign”: “It’s time to switch … to the grown-up governing mode. You now ‘own’ the media. They will cover what you do.”

So, Barack, in the words Nike has used with a generation of would-be athletes like you and me: “Just do it.” And for the next year or so, at least, stop worrying so much about what other people think about how you’re doing it.

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