WASHINGTON – In the days after an oil rig exploded last month in the Gulf of Mexico, the White House faced not only a looming environmental catastrophe but also a potential public relations disaster.

Aides feared a story line would take hold that President Obama had responded too slowly to the spreading oil slick, damaging him politically much as the slow federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 discredited former President George W. Bush.

So while the federal government began reacting to the spreading oil, the White House message machine swung into action.

Within hours, it was cranking out a sustained barrage across the broad spectrum of modern communications — statements, reports, e-mails, tweets, photos and videos — all punctuated by a high-profile presidential visit to the Gulf followed by an incendiary speech at the White House and a video recap with exclusive behind-the-scenes views of Obama in “West Wing Week,” the White House’s new online program at www.whitehouse.gov.

Whether it’s Obama sitting with one reporter or a statement sent via Twitter, nothing happens by accident. The White House message machinery is a crucial element of the ever-expanding presidency.

The White House bureaucracy devoted to managing public imagery has been growing ever since President Nixon created the first office devoted to broad communications strategy in 1969. Obama’s version uses a blend of old and new techniques and technology in an effort to cut through a polarized partisan landscape and a dizzying array of modern mass media that abbreviate attention spans and fracture public attention.


Obama’s White House message machine employs 69 people who are directly involved in some part of the communications effort, at a cost to taxpayers of at least $4.3 million a year. That’s an increase from 47 in Bill Clinton’s White House and 52 in George W. Bush’s.

Those totals don’t include communications staffs at the National Security Council or in Vice President Joe Biden’s offices, or support staff who are paid out of different accounts.

In all, about 350 people worked on the president’s message in the Bush administration — the most recent tally available — said Martha Joynt Kumar, an expert on the White House communications machinery and a professor at Towson State University in Maryland. There’s no reason to think fewer work on Obama’s.

“It’s an enormous operation,” said Bradley Patterson, a veteran of the Eisenhower White House who has chronicled the growth of White House operations.

Obama himself relies heavily on the traditional paths to America’s hearts and minds, from a televised Rose Garden statement Friday voicing anger over the oil spill to his frequent gifts of exclusive interviews to favored TV and newspaper journalists from elite news organizations.

At the same time, he’s limited his exposure to questions in other formats — especially traditional news conferences — as his White House relentlessly uses the new media to supplement its selective manipulation of the old.

The reason for all this media manipulation is simple. Like his recent predecessors, Obama has found that he no longer can dominate the public debate with what Theodore Roosevelt called “the bully pulpit” alone. Rather, he’s confronted by an ever-growing array of competing voices in a 24/7 world of constant media.


On April 29, press secretary Robert Gibbs rolled out Obama and a gusher of Cabinet officers to tell the news media about all the things the administration was doing to combat the oil spill.


That day, Gibbs sent his first oil leak message via Twitter, announcing that Obama had received a 20-minute briefing on the spill.

Others would follow.

“Our comprehensive look inside the aggressive response,” boasted one from deputy press secretary Bill Burton on May 5, with a link to an 11,500-word report from the White House detailing the “around the clock” response from the government. It included 73 mentions of the president.

“A busy day here, but the president has not taken his eyes off the BP spill,” said a May 10 White House tweet, complete with White House photos of Obama meeting with top aides in the Situation Room.


An hour after his first oil spill tweet, Gibbs used Twitter again to send a picture of Obama getting briefed. Message: The president is personally engaged. The shot was taken by official White House photographer Pete Souza, whose office sends out a steady stream of flattering, behind-the-scenes shots of the president, distributed via Flickr and posted on www.whitehouse.gov.

Souza and his colleagues, who include former McClatchy-Tribune Information Services photographer Chuck Kennedy, are respected former journalists. However, their work can be controversial when the White House uses it to replace independent journalism.

The White House shut out photojournalists and instead sent out Souza’s photos when Obama signed an executive order on abortion this year, and when he restaged his inaugural swearing-in last year with Chief Justice John Roberts.

“A photographer on the White House payroll is going to release one photo out of the hundreds he takes,” said Ed Henry, a CNN reporter and the secretary of the White House Correspondents’ Association.

“It’s going to be the one that casts the president in the best possible light.”


From the time the Obama White House decided to launch its coordinated push on the oil spill, it bombarded the news media with e-mail reports on the federal response, emphasizing words such as “aggressive” and “immediate.”

“Administration-wide response,” said one e-mail on May 1, introducing a phrase that would be used repeatedly.


The White House also produces its own video. Obama’s trip to the Gulf Coast on May 2 was covered not only by the news media, but also by the White House’s video team.

May 4, whitehouse.gov had posted a video recap. May 6, it showcased a new version on its “West Wing Week” webcast, “Your guide to everything that’s happening at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.”

“It’s packaged like a hybrid between a week in review program and a documentary version of the old entertainment series ‘West Wing,’ ” said Gerald Jordan, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Arkansas. “Ultimately, there will be an audience that is so accustomed to fragmented media that they might meet at some point.”


The highest-profile White House messenger is the president himself. As the oil spill grew, so did Obama’s public role, from the May 2 visit to the Gulf to an appearance Friday in the Rose Garden.

For all the outreach via Twitter and other new media, Obama himself prefers the old media, which still aggregate the largest audiences. He uses the old media very differently, however.

He takes fewer questions from reporters in open sessions and gives many more one-on-one interviews, particularly to The New York Times, which the White House uses to deliver its message to the nation’s cultural and economic elite, starting with network and cable television news producers.

In 15 months, Obama took questions in formal news conferences or short sessions 83 times. Bush did it 205 times over that period; Clinton 367 times.

Obama gave far more interviews, however: 184 in his first 15 months, compared with 56 for Bush and 61 for Clinton.

“The reason he does interviews is he likes to explain things like a professor, with all the buts and wherefores. He doesn’t like short Q and A’s,” Kumar said.”


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