A lot of things that were supposed to be new under the Obama administration are looking strikingly familiar. The new bipartisanship so far consists mainly of a tone of voice—the president’s—set against the battle cries of Bush-era tribal warfare on Capitol Hill. Similarly, the Obama team’s mastery of new media, lauded during the campaign and deemed a harbinger of a new era, doesn’t seem much in evidence. Or perhaps it just doesn’t matter.
Last week, the administration had some extremely heavy lifting to do, with both the stimulus plan and the financial bailout plan on its agenda. How the White House communicated about those issues suggests something about its view of the media landscape, and also about how new media stack up against the old with a large pile of chips at stake.
Exhibit A is the front page of the Feb. 10 New York Times. The headline’s passive voice and awkward construction—“Geithner Said to Have Prevailed on the Bailout”—promised a Washington whodunit. Who said? And why? The gist of the story was that the Treasury Secretary had “largely prevailed” against David Axelrod and other senior White House political advisers in making the bailout conditions more, rather than less, accommodating to financial institutions.
It seems highly unlikely that the story was a product of a proud cabinet member boasting of his first victory. Besting your internal opponents—and then rubbing their faces in defeat—is a pretty dopey tactic for a guy who needs all the help he can muster. (Although arguably no dopier than spending years positioning yourself to be Treasury Secretary while simultaneously shirking your tax obligations.)
But regardless of its shady provenance, the story managed to accomplish at least two goals: It signaled to the press and pundit class that, as Brad DeLong noted, the bailout was Geithner’s plan, not Obama’s, so responsibility for any subsequent failure belonged down the street from the White House, at Treasury’s doorstep. In addition, it alerted financial institutions that if they didn’t like what Dr. Geithner was prescribing, they’d do well to swallow hard anyway; Dr. Axelrod’s elixir would prove more bitter still.
Elites matter, but they matter even more than usual in a financial crisis, which by definition is elitist in origin (though, as we’ve seen, the consequences can be generously shared). To communicate to both press and banking elites, the White House really has only three good options: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal or The Washington Post. Because no other vehicles—television, Internet, etc.—can command elite attention as surely. Politico.com has become a necessity in Washington, but not so much in New York. Andrew Sullivan is a web powerhouse, and Josh Marshall has a readership as sophisticated as he is (judging by the incisive comments he elicits from readers). But their medium cannot yet deliver the results the White House achieved with a leak to The New York Times.
This, of course, is the basis of many bloggers’ contempt for the MSM—that it’s far too compliant and eager to serve power. Indeed, it’s hard to argue that any civic purpose was advanced by the Times’ scoop; the White House presumably got what it wanted while readers got, well, a fleeting Washington whodunit of dubious consequence. But even if others had been willing to play the White House’s game, they couldn’t have delivered The Times’ powerfully precise audience. There are tasks for which television’s mass is too indiscriminating and for which the Web’s niches are too confining. Newspapers may lack a viable, long-term business model, but, hey, at least the superstars among them still got game.
Exhibit B from last week is the campaign the president launched in behalf of the stimulus package, which consisted of photogenic road trips to Indiana and Florida and a prime-time televised speech. Would Ronald Reagan, circa 1982, have had a different media strategy? Would Richard Nixon have?
The Internet has enormous utility for organizing, informing, promoting. But television is still the king of persuasion. That’s why the Obama campaign, deploying the greatest financial engine in political history, spent a staggering $300 million on television advertising. Obama’s path-breaking candidacy was advanced by a barrage of 30-second advertising spots that were fundamentally no different in kind from all the 30-second spots that had preceded him. Wanna bet where the bulk of the campaign’s reelection kitty will go in 2012?
Change is complicated—and slow—in all sorts of ways.