May 21, 2016

RICHARD BENEDETTO: How Obama Gets Away With It: It is amazing that the president’s dismal record is largely absent from the 2016 campaign—until you consider his PR machine.

Usually when an incumbent president is leaving office and a slew of candidates are battling for his job, that departing chief executive’s record is a major campaign issue.

But not this year, even though two of three Americans say the country is on the wrong track, job creation is sluggish, income inequality continues to rise and Mr. Obama’s job approval barely tops 50%. Moreover, approval of his handling of the war on terror and Islamic State is underwater, and a majority of Americans—white and black—say race relations are getting worse, not better.

When Mr. Obama ran for office in 2008, a central part of his campaign strategy was to heap blame on George W. Bush. How has Mr. Obama dodged similar treatment? One reason: Donald Trump’s bombastic candidacy is a huge distraction and often blocks out or obliterates more-substantive issues. That was the case even when his now-vanquished rivals tried to address serious topics. When Mr. Trump does criticize the president, it gets far less news play than his attacks on his opponents and critics, Republican or Democrat. As for Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, they both are angling for a third consecutive Democratic administration, so are not eager to criticize Mr. Obama.

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.

First, they’re Democratic operatives with bylines, and he’s a Democrat. Second, they refuse to let the first black President be remembered as a disaster — even if, as here, he is a disaster.