The Prime-Time Presidency
How does one tell when we reach the point of having too much of a good thing? During the 2008 election season, there was no question that Barack Obama enjoyed broad popularity (this has continued into the troubled honeymoon period of his presidency). The media compliantly serves up all of the new leader that we can handle, and perhaps more. But, as William Blake once noted, "The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom ... for we never know what is enough until we know what is more than enough." Is President Obama in danger of marketing himself out of an audience?
With his prime-time appearance last Tuesday night, President Barack Obama set an unusual record for modern times, holding more televised appeals to the nation in just over two months than his predecessor staged in the last two years. He was also our first sitting president to plop down on the couch with Jay Leno for a late-night chat. (His teleprompter-free excursion into comedy at the expense of the Special Olympics may explain the reluctance of previous West Wing denizens to brave those waters.)
These high-profile forays into the public eye and interruptions of vital national affairs such as Dancing With the Stars are only the tip of the iceberg. George W. Bush had more than his share of bill signing ceremonies, meeting with foreign dignitaries and other press availabilities during his final two years in office, but the networks generally couldn't be bothered to carry them. For Bush to interrupt a rerun of Lost would, in the opinion of some, have required him to start a third war. This stands in stark contrast to the current leader of the free world, who manages to stop the presses every time he emerges from the White House to scarf down a couple of red hots at Gray's Papaya.
Presidents enjoy the vast power and influence of the bully pulpit, perhaps more than any other public figure. It's only natural that they would exercise this privilege to bring their message and agenda directly to the people on occasion in an effort to foster public support. But President Obama seems to be moving this battle of the airwaves into a next generation of policy warfare. One day he's out in California with the Governator and the next he's hosting a meeting with labor union leaders.
Observing these cross-country jaunts to push his agenda forward, I keep coming back to the one question which has lurked in the back of my mind since January 20. Has Barack Obama yet realized that he won that election and he is no longer on the campaign trail?
Defenders of these tactics are quick to point out that many presidents have enjoyed great success in taking their message directly to the people. Among the most oft-quoted are FDR's historic series of radio broadcasts, colloquially referred to as the fireside chats. It's worth noting, however, that Roosevelt delivered only thirty such performances over a period of eleven years. The fact that they were infrequent made them all the more noteworthy to the public, particularly in an age when media saturation was still decades away.
There is little doubt that a large portion of the duties of modern presidents falls into the category of public relations. The entertainment value and popularity of the show can readily translate to good "ratings" for the administration, with high hopes that the applause will result in both support for their policies and electoral success further down the road. As with any popular production, though, too much of a good thing can indeed exceed the limit of the public's attention span.
CBS ruled the Neilsen ratings books for several years running, largely on the success of their crime drama CSI. In an effort to capitalize on the public's appetite for such fare, they launched CSI Miami to mixed reviews. By the time CSI New York debuted, even the most hardcore fans were reaching the burnout stage. The point is, we tend to grow indifferent through an excess of familiarity.
The president of the United States is not Gil Grissom, nor is he some sort of Doc Severinsen on a beltway version of Johnny Carson's nightly production. I suspect there is a limit on how many episodes of The Prime-Time Presidency we will collectively sit through before the viewers begin to wonder what it is that the star is supposedly doing at his day job. I predict that the launch of CSI: District of Columbia would have a short run, so our president may want to dole out his guest star stints a bit less frequently
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