Barack Obama needs to be a president, not a TV star

[3 February 2010]

By David Zurawik

The Baltimore Sun (MCT)

He’s baaaack. TV Obama is everywhere — again.

Friday, the White House asked for TV coverage of President Barack Obama’s visit to Baltimore for the GOP retreat. Saturday, he showed up at halftime on CBS for its coverage of the Georgetown-Duke basketball game. Tuesday, he did a town hall meeting in New Hampshire with the good citizens of the Granite State sitting there like a TV audience. Sunday, he’ll be interviewed by Katie Couric before the Super Bowl.

Trying to buck up Brand Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama was interviewed Wednesday on NBC’s “Today” by Matt Lauer. Too bad Jay Leno’s such a mess these days, or the president would probably be back there as well this week.

Yes, the president did indeed get the message from Massachusetts, but it might not be the one angry and frightened Americans meant to send. The message he appears to have received: Get back on TV like it’s 2008 and you are running for president. Because while this governing thing has not been working out too well during the first year, the one thing you can do is perform in front of the camera like no other politician since Ronald Reagan. Work it, baby, work it.

As I have written before, when the going gets tough, President Obama gets on television. TV performance is almost everything with this president, and I think that is one of the reasons things have gone so badly behind the scenes during his first 12 months in office. Playing a president on TV is not enough in a time of crisis like the one we find ourselves in today.

Watching the president’s performance Tuesday in New Hampshire as he strutted about the stage microphone in hand with the citizens of New Hampshire sitting on risers behind him, I was struck by how much he reminded me of Oprah Winfrey or Phil Donahue, working the audience of a daytime talk show. (The Donahue reference is for readers of a certain ago who remember Phil in his glory days.)

And I wondered about all the praise President Obama received for his performance in Baltimore last Friday. Health-care reform is locked up behind one of those closed doors in Congress, gasping for life and possibly abandoned, and the press is praising the president for being glib and striking a pose of conciliation before the TV cameras in Baltimore.

And here we go again in the TV press: We are praising the TV pose, while taking our eyes of the hard work that isn’t getting done. The C-SPAN cameras were kept away from the sausage-making of health care, and we go ga-ga over the White House having the president travel 40 miles down I-95 to perform on a TV stage — and letting us have the privilege of watching him win a media performance mismatch with House Republicans. He uses TV to give the appearance of bipartisan governance and an open door to GOP ideas. Maybe, if he’s lucky, some viewers will even blame the GOP instead of just Democrats for the lack of focus and progress on jobs during the last 12 months.

Last year at this time, as a media and TV critic, I was delighted at the thought of having the most savvy TV president since Ronald Reagan to write about for the next four years.

Today, as a citizen, I am utterly dismayed by the way those TV skills have been used to paper over what appears to be a lack of vision and sustained effort from the man behind the video image.

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