President Barack Obama is more in tune with technology and social media than any president before him. He's participated in Q&As with YouTube users. He has nearly four million followers on Twitter and more than eight million fans on Facebook, the site that helped get him elected in the first place.
"This president is such an electronics geek," said April Ryan, White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Network. "He's even got his own BlackBerry."
Nonetheless, Obama's tenure in the White House so far has underscored a very different kind of lesson: that even sophisticated understanding of the technological aspects of presidential communication doesn't necessarily mean that the nation's chief executive will be able to cut through the din of national discourse and effectively get his message across.
"This president I think by and large has not been very successful at this point as a communicator," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism. "After one year lost a lot of support, the midterms look like they could be brutal, and I think they are still finding their method of controlling their message."
Thus far, the Obama administration's method has been to use as many outlets as possible, including new media like blogs and social networking sites.
"We have really tried to develop content and capacities to allow ourselves to reach people as they shift their news habits," said Macon Phillips, White House director of new media. "These tools are a reflection of the growing landscape of options that are out there. We are trying out a lot of new things."
Phillips oversees a staff of seven, the largest new media team a White House has ever had. His position as director was boosted from a mid-level staff position under George W. Bush to a special presidential assistant under Obama. "The ultimate goal is to make sure the American public has more information about their government," he said in an interview.
But Rosenstiel, for one, questions the benefits of Obama's use of social media.
"The audience of old media vastly exceeds that of new media," said Rosenstiel. "Twenty million people watch network news with an average age of 60, they don't go on Twitter, and those are the people who still vote."
Rosenstiel said in today's media landscape it is essential for the president to make use of all outlets. "It is harder to be president now. You have to be able to speak Twitter and Facebook as well as network television and cable television."
To be fair, Obama has hardly abandoned traditional media outlets. During his first year in office, he did 91 television interviews, according to Towson professor Martha Joynt Kumar. To compare, George W. Bush did 20 and Bill Clinton did 16. Kumar has studied the president and the press for more than 30 years. Her conclusion? No matter how many outlets Obama uses or how often, if the message itself isn't clear, it doesn't matter.
"Their basic communications problem has been muddled messages where it is unclear what position the president is taking or why he has chosen a particular course of action," Kumar said, citing the mixed messages emanating from the White House on heath care legislation as the clearest example.
"In the summer, in their discussions on health care, he used as many media as he could," Professor Kumar said. "Flickr or Facebook or Twitter, they used all of them. But people still didn't know what it was that the health care proposal was about. He spoke before they could clearly articulate the problems they were seeking to address in their legislation."
New Media, Old Story
Obama is certainly not the first president to have to navigate a new medium and adapt to changing technologies. It's been going on for the better part of a century, with some residents of the Oval Office being more adept at change than others.
In his famous "fireside chats," Franklin Delano Roosevelt utilized the new medium of radio in the 1930s to soothe Americans beleaguered by the Great Depression -- and to rally a nation that found itself fighting a world war. "He would use radio like the great teacher," said Rosenstiel "He would do a fireside chat and literally tell people to pull out their atlases and he would explain where Germany is or where Poland is and he would explain to them, very gradually, why the country might need to go to war."
Later, the general who helped FDR win that war, ushered in the advent of another advance in political communication. In January 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower held the first televised press conference. "That was an enormous change," said Kumar. "In a sense, it's an even bigger change than what we are having today."
As would be true with the Internet a half-century later, the democratizing aspects of television were immediate -- if not immediately recognizable to all. Harry Truman was the first president to have a TV in the White House, and Eisenhower was the first to televise a press conference. Yet the first president to successfully navigate the demanding idiosyncrasies of the television camera was John F. Kennedy -- and the first to utterly master to new medium was Ronald Reagan, who was dubbed the "great communicator."
"He was really the first president who fully understood the way that television could speak to people," said Rosenstiel. In 1992, Bill Clinton expanded the zone, using non-traditional television venues to connect to the public, especially during the 1992 campaign.
"He played the saxophone on Arsenio Hall and answered on MTV what kind of underwear he wore," Rosenstiel recalled. "He demonstrated that he was connecting with people in the places where they were now getting news and information."
Now Obama is expanding it even further, and in the process has joined the ranks of other presidents in history and using a new medium to spread his message.
"The Obama team has always been fascinated by new media," said Reuters White House correspondent Caren Bohan. She said she first saw his affinity for new technologies during the 2008 campaign. "Their big goal was to announce the V.P. pick in August 2008 via text message."
Macon Phillips directed the initiative to announce Obama's vice presidential pick through text message while working as deputy director of new media during the campaign. He also helped spearhead the design of Obama's presidential campaign website. "We learned in the campaign about the power of technology to really communicate with people and to give them a chance to participate," Phillips said.
ABC News White House correspondent Ann Compton, for one, said Obama cannot substitute new media for old media. "The campaign really learned to harness the energy of millions of people who signed up on the Obama website," said Compton, "But it isn't the same as getting news out through the mainstream media."
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