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To Stay in the Conversation, Barack Obama is Going Small

By Isaac-Edward Dovere, Politico

Apr 23, 2015

EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK, Fla. – This week, President Barack Obama took a guided tour of sawgrass and alligators and brought Bill Nye the Science Guy along on Air Force One to tape a White House website video about climate change.

Next week? Tune in for the next episode of Barack Obama, stunt president.

The White House is developing an outreach strategy for the last year and a half of Obama’s presidency designed to keep him relevant to the public debate even as Hillary Clinton and the Republican candidates dominate the national news more and more.

White House aides say they recognize that the prospect of Obama doing another factory tour followed by 10 minutes of remarks appeals less and less to reporters, editors and producers — and to West Wing staffers themselves.

Instead, they’ve decided to work from Obama’s strengths, which they know they haven’t been maximizing in recent years. The president is good off-the-cuff and in conversation, and still has celebrity appeal. And he’s started to accept that he’s going to have to do a lot more trying if he has any hope of not being written off as a lame duck waddling around the Rose Garden. Even interviews with all the stars of YouTube won’t get the same attention that they used to.

So the focus going forward will be on small events. Candid moments. More intimate settings.

“It’s not about him speaking at you, it’s about him speaking with you,” said Jen Psaki, Obama’s new communications director, who’s heading up a lot of the rethinking.

Some might think that a “going small” media strategy might be a tacit recognition that the president is, in fact, a lame duck. But White House aides don’t see it that way.

Through last year, Obama and his White House insisted that they didn’t care about optics — but going forward, optics will matter more. Wednesday, his big announcement was free annual national park passes for fourth-graders, but he did it with the wetlands behind him and turkey vultures overhead, and wearing a casual outfit for a fan-boat ride (canceled because of rain worries) that press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters the night before the trip was supposed to produce “a pretty iconic image, and would, as the saying goes, say at least a thousand words about the president’s commitment to the environment and to climate change and the Everglades itself.”

The audiences will undoubtedly be smaller. While the president walked through the wetlands, cable news stayed locked on police shootings and planes being forced to land. Obama didn’t even fill all the folding chairs set up for the Everglades backdrop during the brief speech he did give about protecting the environment and this national park from rising seas.

“The first thing you notice is that the cable networks that used to cover every speech the president gave are now covering the campaigns,” said Kevin Sullivan, remembering his days as the communications director at the end of President George W. Bush’s second term. Sullivan said Bush’s aides started by moving the acknowledgments that usually opened Bush’s speeches below whatever news they could make, to try to get at least a few minutes of airtime.

But they didn’t have a lot of options. Late night comedy and daytime talk shows like “The View” and “Ellen” were all seen as unfriendly, and the Bush White House didn’t get the invitations or seek them out. Bush had wanted to stick to one news conference per month, but John McCain’s campaign soon asked the White House to stop. By the time Bush did the traditional lunch with the network news anchors before his 2008 State of the Union, all they wanted to talk about was Obama pulling ahead of Clinton in the primaries and how he thought it would all shake out.

Obama’s optics in the Everglades turned out to be less than ideal. Because the boat tour was canceled, the most Obama has for a photo from his Everglades trip is a shot of him standing on a wood pier while park rangers point out things in the wetlands.

White House aides expressed hope that Obama’s trip will at least reach people through the Florida news media, or through social media for people who care about the environment. Those are the sorts of events they’re focused on now: Last year for Equal Pay Day, Obama signed an executive order requiring equal pay for government contractors; last week for Equal Pay Day, he did a town hall in North Carolina with mom bloggers.

In a White House that’s dealing with forcibly reshaped expectations, that’s good enough.

“It’s thinking about a way to create an environment where you can have a deep-dive discussion with people who care about these issues,” Psaki said.

It’s not that Obama’s become irrelevant to the news cycle or the presidential race. Only because of him, White House aides point out, are people talking about trade deals and Iran’s nuclear program, and candidates are then forced to respond. And they think they’ve still got enough in play to keep that going. Pretty much every Republican keeps talking about him and everything that they think he’s doing wrong. Pretty much every policy question that Clinton’s being asked so far boils down to: Do you agree with Obama?

The question is how to get attention for Obama himself — and issues like raising the minimum wage and expanding paid leave that the White House claims credit for getting moving on the local level by having the president call attention to them nationally all last year.

White House aides say they’ve yet to formalize a system for being in touch with Clinton’s campaign. But they believe the model they built during the uproar over the former secretary of state’s private email account can carry them for now: Earnest has open lines to Clinton communications adviser Phillipe Reines and to Jennifer Palmieri, who was making her transition from the White House to the campaign just as that story broke. Anything more extensive than that, they say, will have to wait until after there’s officially a Democratic nominee.

In the meantime, there’s a sense of greater freedom at the White House, a feeling that they can take some risks. Issues like criminal justice reform, which the president really wants to get done and which in late March prompted the White House to invite “The Wire” creator David Simon over for a conversation with Obama, are “not necessarily issues that a political strategist would recommend,” one White House aide said.

“We’re thinking carefully about how to use his time and how to use his time to effectively communicate what he stands for, and what he values,” Psaki said.

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