Published for www.american.com, May 15, 2012
President Obama’s recent announcement of his policy change on gay marriage made news, and not just because of the policy, but for the way in which he announced it: In an interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts. As the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi wrote, Obama’s release was “controversial” in that he did not do it in the traditional ways of a press conference or an Oval Office address, but in a daytime television interview on the second-ranking network, and with a reporter who does not typically focus on politics. Politico’s Dylan Byers also noted the oddity of the choice, speculating that the White House may have selected Roberts, who is an African-American and a Christian, to soften the blow of his policy shift in those particular communities.
Regardless of the reason, it seems clear that the Obama administration put some serious thought into how to manage their policy shift. This fits into a pattern of Obama and his team aggressively micro-managing their relationship with TV news. As CNN’s Jonathan Wald told Byers, “The White House is very careful who it picks for which message.” As this story shows, for all the talk about Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, television remains the key medium by which Americans get not only their news, but also their impressions of our political leaders.
The relationship between presidents and TV goes back a long way. For decades, White House and campaign communicators have recognized that a president’s initial appearances on television shape the American people’s views of an entire presidency, and it is difficult for initial impressions, once established, to be overcome. This makes TV a key gatekeeper for determining not only who becomes president, but also how that president will be viewed both during the administration and beyond. As a result, mastering TV has become a crucial skill for presidents and wannabes alike. It also creates challenges for presidents. In order to be successful, they must be acutely aware of how they are portrayed on TV. They must also recognize that how they are portrayed goes beyond news programming. Despite this high-wire act, they cannot be overly reactive to how they are portrayed on a daily basis. These challenging tasks have been faced by every one of our presidents in the TV age–with varying degrees of success.