Although President Obama is leaving office with a dismal economic record and the country more divided than at any time since the eighteen-sixties, the president himself seems to float unscathed above his damage.
Why? Richard Benedetto, retired White House correspondent and now a journalism professor, today poses this question in the Wall Street Journal and supplies an intriguing answer: President Obama has a public relations shop second to none. Donald Trump's bombastic campaign is a factor in drawing attention away from the president, Benedetto admits, explaining:
But another reason—a big one—why Mr. Obama is able to avoid being a target is that he is a deft manipulator of the media, probably more skillful at it than any president ever. He heads a savvy public-relations machine that markets him like a Hollywood celebrity, a role he obligingly and successfully plays.
One of the machine’s key tactics is to place Mr. Obama in as many positive news and photo situations as possible. Ronald Reagan’s advisers were considered masters of putting their man in the best possible light, but they look like amateurs compared with the Obama operation—which has the added advantage of a particularly obliging news media.
A sampling over the past few weeks: A Washington Post photo captures President Obama blowing giant bubbles “At the final White House Science Fair of his presidency.” A New York Times photo shows the president mobbed by women admirers at a ceremony designating the Sewall-Belmont House on Capitol Hill as a national museum for women’s equality.
An ABC News video gives us Mr. Obama’s helicopter landing on the rainy grounds of Britain’s Windsor Castle, and then we visit the president and first lady lunching with Queen Elizabeth II on her 90th birthday.
In other news clips, we see a doctoral-robed Obama speaking to graduates of Howard University, a tuxedoed Obama yukking it up at the White House Correspondents Association dinner, a brave Obama drinking a glass of water in Flint, Mich., a cool Obama grooving with Aretha Franklin at a White House jazz concert, a serious Obama intently listening to Saudi King Salman, a jubilant Obama on his showy trip to Cuba.
Advertising, regarded as manipulative, was always a bugaboo for the intellectual class. Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders, published in the late fifties, set the tone of disdain for advertising in the sixties and seventies.
The left remained disdainful of advertising throughout the eighties, when they felt that Ronald Reagan was the product of savvy PR. But they are not so critical now that President Obama is the beneficiary.
I hate to sound like a sixties leftie, but the idea that the president's actual record matters less than his PR shop's skill is distressing.
Of course, none of this skillful presentation keeps the president from having a speaking role:
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but with Mr. Obama you also get the thousand words.