This month, Google and the Obama Administration announced an unprecedented partnership geared toward increasing the White House’s engagement with the American public. The tech behemoth and the current president would combine forces to create the first-ever “Presidential Hangout Road Trip” on January 31st, during which Obama would bounce from Google+ hangout to hangout across the nation to get citizen feedback on the ideas from his State of the Union Address three days before.
TBR Blog is a space for commentary, opinion and reports on research in progress.
This unique endeavor was scheduled to follow on the heels of another tech-driven public engagement effort: a virtual “Big Block of Cheese Day” inspired in equal parts by an episode of NBC’s The West Wing, and an odd and otherwise forgotten moment of populism from the era of Andrew Jackson. To celebrate Jackson’s 1837 act of inviting the public to the White House to nibble on a huge block of cheese while pleading for government attention to their various plights and projects, the Obama Administration assigned dozens of its officials to monitor a range of social media outlets on January 29th. They sought to engage with any American citizen who remembered to use the official Cheese Day hashtag, #AsktheWH.
All pop culture goofiness aside, these two events would seem to indicate a White House determined to engage the American public and committed to employing every media tool — including new media — to do so. And indeed, the White House has called versions of this play before, from the much ballyhooed (and, later, much mocked) We the People petition site to the president’s 2012 Reddit AMA.
At the same time, however, in the shadow of new media openness, journalists and commentators have criticized this White House for its opaqueness, secrecy and media manipulation.
For example, Jill Abramson, executive editor of the New York Times, recently described the Obama White House as the most secretive White House she had ever been involved in covering, comparing it disfavorably even to the George W. Bush Administration. Similarly, Chuck Todd, NBC News’s chief White House correspondent, described the administration as “very controlling,” noting also its obsession with prosecuting leaks (it has pursued at least seven criminal leak investigations and its Justice Department was caught tracking reporter James Rosen). Other administration habits paint a similar portrait, including a terrible FOIA request record, the fewest press conferences in a presidential first term in three decades and an ongoing battle with the press over photo access. The result is a White House that is seemingly schizophrenic with regard to transparency.
So what gives? Is the Obama Administration a tech-savvy team focused on breaking through the noise, as my political science colleagues Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha and Jeffrey Peake term it, and communicating directly with the people? Or might they instead be cynical masters of information dissemination who choose to engage in arenas that offer them the biggest P.R. buzz while maintaining the greatest degree of control? Perhaps Chuck Todd’s explanation is right: “I feel like this is a White House that takes advantage of technology to go around the press in a way that we’ve never seen any other White House do — maybe that’s because of technology, maybe it’s not.”
Or maybe the less charitable explanation offered by Slate.com’s perpetual gadfly, Dave Weigel, is most on the mark. In a post titled “White House Pays Tribute to The West Wing to Temporarily Distract From Its Unpopularity,” Weigel implies these new engagement efforts (i.e., the Big Block of Cheese Day) are designed to dupe reporters into writing friendly pieces about a novel event rather than yet another story about the administration’s problems.
But that focus on the individuals making decisions at this moment in the Obama White House is too narrow. Rather, we are in a new era of presidential communication, what Stephen Hartnett, Jennifer Mercieca and I have in different places termed the post-rhetorical presidency. In a post-rhetorical presidency, the chief executive is limited in his ability to bring his message to the people (“Going Public,” so to speak) to put pressure on Congress to act. Not surprisingly, the president is limited by some of the usual offenders: heightened partisan polarization, impossible expectations and an exceptionally fragmented media environment impossible to dominate directly. Even the most earnest and above-board presidents simply can’t follow the going-public model to policy making success.
Consider the last two times a major going public campaign took place: Obama’s Affordable Care Act and Bush’s Social Security Reform. Obama employed a weak communications strategy to sell severely compromised legislation laden with pork. Priot to that, a recently reelected Bush declared a mandate and stumped the country on behalf of a policy solution to an issue that most Americans agreed was a problem. He managed only to lead it right off the congressional agenda.
But even if presidents, including Barack Obama in 2014, can no longer follow this model, we as Americans still expect them to engage us, both on substantive issues and as our symbolic figurehead. In that situation, with nothing really to gain but lots to lose, it makes sense that presidents gravitate toward splashy yet easily controlled events and eschew situations where they are themselves vulnerable to confrontation and accountability. This, of course, is not an excuse, but instead an attempt at an explanation for why contemporary presidential deliberation side-shows such as Obama’s upcoming Google hangout tour and his administration’s Jacksonian e-cheese sessions have effectively replaced authentic engagement and, regardless of the victor of the 2016 presidential election, will almost certainly continue to.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.