Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I'm sorry, I couldn't hear you from over there

Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency on a promise of post-partisanism and consensus-building with people of all political leanings and opinions. It was a great idea, and one to which he seemed to genuinely aspire for a while. He appointed (or at least tried to appoint) several Republicans to his Cabinet, he sought input from Republican leaders on the stimulus bill, even though most of the conservative ideals were ultimately stripped from the bill before it was signed into law, and he worked hard to extend gestures, albeit mostly symbolic ones, to the conservative "Right" during the early days of his administration, starting with inviting the Reverend Rick Warren to give the invocation at his Inauguration.

I wasn't too concerned when his administration and Democrats in general started taking potshots at Republicans and other conservatives, since that's what Democrats do. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel used to be the House Democratic Whip, which meant he was supposed to stir up the left against the right. Some suggested that this would make him an ineffective consensus builder, but it's still Obama's administration, and it's still Obama's decisions.

One decision that he's made lately, though, has caused me a certain amount of concern. I read a report, put out by Politico and Yahoo! News that said the administration, at Obama's behest, will seek to bypass the White House press corps and reach out to "liberal commentators, local reporters and ethnic media".

The article says the aim is "communicating directly with audiences the White House believes are more sympathetic to the president’s agenda". Those audiences include the Huffington Post, "progressive" radio and bloggers, and some ethnic media outlets like Telemundo and Black Enterprise. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs says this is an effort to reach "people that aren't cable junkies or news junkies".

Others see a slightly different agenda, though. For one, as the article states repeatedly, the outlets are all liberal or liberal-leaning, at some points characterizing them as "friendly". Some see this as a sign of trouble for the president, that he needs to reach out to his "friends", campaigning for his agenda among those supporters of his who don't seem to support him as much lately.

Personally, I don't care much about that. A president should take the time to promote his agenda, to let the American people know exactly what his plans are and why he made them. Perhaps, if President George W. Bush had done a better job of explaining himself, he would have garnered more public support for his own initiatives.

Targetting liberal audiences, though, is not a move that I think a liberal president needs to make. Doing so ignores fully half of the country. At a time when shows like The O'Reilly Factor consistently draw larger audiences than Countdown with Keith Olbermann, when the New York Times is in decline and the Wall Street Journal's stock is on the rise, and when attacking conservative radio only drives up its listenership, if you want to take your message to the American people, then you need to start using conservative outlets.

I don't recommend that the president go on the Rush Limbaugh show, but it certainly couldn't hurt him to hold interviews with more conservative pundits. When he was interviewed by Bill O'Reilly, his standing in the eyes of Republicans rose considerably. He effectively countered the popular argument of the time that "Obama will meet with terrorists without preconditions, but he won't even let Fox News interview him".

If he wants to show true post-partisanism, then it will take much more than a Republican Secretary of Transportation. Gibbs' argument seemed to be that Obama wants to speak to people who typically do not tune in to CNN. Well, his words aren't likely to reach Republican eyes and ears if they appear in the Daily Kos. He's selling to walk-in traffic. If he wants to increase sales, then he needs to set up some billboards.

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