In the past 100 days Americans have watched Barack Obama drink a beer at a Washington Wizards game. They have seen him give the queen of England an iPod and thank Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie for her rendition of the national anthem. They've laughed (or groaned) at the jokes he cracked with late-night talk-show host Jay Leno.
All these may seem like the usual personal tidbits that the public demands from its pop-culture icons. But Mr. Obama's stardom is no chance obsession. It's part of a White House media strategy to pitch the president as a person ... and then sell his policies. The idea evolved from the campaign, when chief strategist David Axelrod led an effort to get voters comfortable with a little-known, biracial candidate who spent his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia.
The White House press team has worked to familiarize the country with Barack Obama -- how he meddles in the first lady's fashion choices; treats himself to "some mean waffles and grits" for breakfast, according to Mrs. Obama; and enjoys watching his young daughters feast on a supply of Starburst candy on board the Marine One helicopter.
To get this message across, the White House has granted wide access to nontraditional media outlets that include celebrity publications, entertainment television shows, and publications and radio programs targeted at African-American or Hispanic audiences. The stories that appear in these outlets quickly filter up to the mainstream press and often drive the news -- or at least the water-cooler chatter -- of the day.
In a People magazine article, the first lady dishes about her marriage and says she favors Portuguese water dogs, a scoop that quickly became an Associated Press story and dominated the nightly news. (The White House agreed to give the Washington Post an exclusive when puppy Bo arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.)
The Obama press team invited reporters from ESPN to shadow the president as he revealed his picks for the NCAA college basketball championship. Vanity Fair put Mr. Obama on the cover of its March issue -- a Hollywood issue typically reserved for actors.
"I don't know if I consider it celebrity media," says White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. "There's a very valuable human-interest element in showing who they are as a family."
The human-interest stories are just one side of a White House media approach that keeps tight control over Mr. Obama's message. Mr. Obama has been made available for interviews, but many have been limited in duration and with specifically targeted outlets such as an interview with CNN en Español prior to a trip to Mexico.
Mr. Obama isn't the first president to use entertainment news to his advantage. In 1963 the Kennedy administration recruited Look magazine photographer Stanley Tretick to snap the iconic shot of John F. Kennedy working in the Oval Office while his young son played under the desk.
George W. Bush gave exclusive interviews to Field and Stream and Ladies Home Journal. He and Laura Bush invited self-help guru Dr. Phil McGraw to their Texas ranch to discuss responsible parenting.
But today's media world of ubiquitous blogs and Twitter -- combined with the historic nature of the presidency of the first African-American in the post -- has heightened interest and boosted Mr. Obama's celebrity image.
In the current media environment it's almost impossible to provide too much information about Mr. Obama, Mr. Gibbs says, adding, "Overexposure right now might be an outdated term."
Not everyone agrees. Marketers say there is a fine line between publicizing a person or product and exhausting the public's appetite. "There's a certain tipping point," says Allen Adamson, a managing director of brand consultancy Landor Associates. "If he's always on television, when is he doing the work?"
Several Republicans concede that, at least for now, the Obama press team's strategy is working. In a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted April 23-26, 61% of Americans approve of the job Mr. Obama is doing as president. (On the economy specifically, 55% of respondents said they approve of the job Mr. Obama is doing.)
"Voters today don't want or expect perfection from their presidents so much as they want humanity," says media consultant Mark McKinnon, who worked on Mr. Bush's presidential campaigns.
Last month when Mr. Obama faced public criticism for his financial bailout plan in light of bonus payments to employees at American International Group Inc. even as it was propped up with federal money, the president's press team quickly arranged an appearance on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno." More than 14 million people turned in to watch the first late-night talk show appearance by a sitting president.
The Obama team's approach has its pitfalls. Crafting the consistent, concise message that helped Mr. Obama win the election has proven more difficult in the White House. In his appearance on "The Tonight Show," press aides scrambled to deal with the president's gaffe comparing his bowling skills to the Special Olympics, a comment that nonetheless deflected attention from Mr. Obama's economic message. Critics have accused Mr. Obama of having an inconsistent message recently, particularly in his assessment of the economic crisis and the recent release of interrogation memos.
And if the administration continues to play up Mr. Obama's persona, rather than policies, it may lead critics to accuse the president of appearing frivolous in a time of economic crisis, says Republican media consultant Tom Edmonds.
"He's Twittering away his good will with the [Republican] base," Mr. Edmonds says. "It's all sizzle and no steak."
But Mr. Gibbs says appealing to all types of media outlets is a central element of the White House press strategy.
"People are getting their news from so many different sources," Mr. Gibbs says. "What may have been edgy five years ago or even five months ago, is very much just a part of the process these days."
It's 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark, and we're wearing sunglasses
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