At a time when large numbers of Americans say they are fed up with politics and politicians, why is it that the nation’s chief politician, President Obama, seems to skate above it unscathed?
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.
A sampling over the past few weeks: A Washington Post photo captures President Obama blowing giant bubbles “At the final White House Science Fair of his presidency.” A New York Times
photo shows the president mobbed by women admirers at a ceremony designating the Sewall-Belmont House on Capitol Hill as a national museum for women’s equality.
An ABC News video gives us Mr. Obama’s helicopter landing on the rainy grounds of Britain’s Windsor Castle, and then we visit the president and first lady lunching with Queen Elizabeth II on her 90th birthday.
In other news clips, we see a doctoral-robed Obama speaking to graduates of Howard University, a tuxedoed Obama yukking it up at the White House Correspondents Association dinner, a brave Obama drinking a glass of water in Flint, Mich., a cool Obama grooving with Aretha Franklin at a White House jazz concert, a serious Obama intently listening to Saudi King Salman, a jubilant Obama on his showy trip to Cuba.
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but with Mr. Obama you also get the thousand words.
Yet at the same time we were seeing those nice photos, videos and articles, a lot of other important stuff was going on where Mr. Obama was hardly mentioned, seen or questioned. For example, the U.S. economy grew at a meager 0.5% in the first quarter of 2016; Russian military planes lately have been buzzing U.S. Navy ships; and China is building its military forces and expanding their reach in the South China Sea. Early in May, a Navy SEAL was killed in Iraq (the president has assured the American public that U.S. troops there, increasing in numbers, are not in combat roles). Islamic State terrorist attacks in Baghdad in recent weeks have killed scores of civilians. The Taliban are on the march in Afghanistan. The vicious war in Syria continues. The Middle East refugee crisis shows no sign of diminishing. Military provocations by Iran and North Korea keep coming.
President Obama’s media handlers try to keep the president as far away from these crises as possible, leaving others in his administration such as Press Secretary Josh Earnest, Vice President Joe Biden
, Secretary of State John Kerry
, Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford to be their public face. That way the problems don’t appear to be Mr. Obama’s problem, and he is free to bask in the good news.
One of the news media’s main jobs is to hold public officials accountable, from the president on down. But Mr. Obama is the beneficiary of news-media managers and reporters who mostly like his style and agree with his policies, from his reluctance to make strong military commitments to his advocacy for LGBT rights, fighting climate change and supporting tougher gun-control laws. Case in point: The administration’s easy orchestration of the media story line about the Iranian nuclear deal, recently revealed by Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, only scratches the surface of the White House’s skill at managing a media happy to be managed.
Given such a congruence of opinion, Mr. Obama’s policies don’t receive the scrutiny and analysis they should. Reporters who criticize or dig too deep are cast by the administration as spoilsports or, worse, cut off from sources.
With Donald Trump now the media obsession—and most in the media don’t like him—it is easy to see why Mr. Obama’s performance over the past seven-plus years is still not a major issue in the 2016 campaign. And that’s the way he likes it.
Mr. Benedetto, a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist, teaches politics and journalism at American University and in the Fund for American Studies program at George Mason University.