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The White House's agenda woes: Broadcast standards, Internet age

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, December 7 2009

The New York Times' John Harwood makes the intriguing suggestion that the Internet is, in part, to blame for Barack Obama's less than stellar poll numbers of late. The argument is that because of the fractured nature of the modern TV-Internet-mobile media sphere, team Obama hasn't been able to get much use out of the agenda setting tricks of past administration's. That wouldn't be too much of a problem if (a) the Obama Administration didn't insist upon such energetic multi-tasking that only serves to confuse reporters and (b) the public didn't still expect the American presidency to set the public agenda, and regard an inability to dominate the news cycle with a coherent message -- a la the broadcast era -- as a sign of a weak, directionless presidential administration. Your move, Obama White House:

Ever since Mr. Obama took office, critics of his leadership style have accused him of tackling too many initiatives at once. That blurs the focus of the White House and Congress, they say, and prevents the president from communicating a clear theme about his agenda to ordinary Americans.

Now, as Mr. Obama’s approval rating in polls has dwindled to 50 percent or below, that criticism has grown louder.

“It is a very real problem,” said a Republican pollster, Jan van Lohuizen, who advised President George W. Bush. “Not just that attention is scattered, but the message is scattered as well.”

But that case, 11 months into Mr. Obama’s presidency, remains unproved. On health care and climate change, at least, he has drawn closer to achieving his goals — and challenging accepted notions of how modern presidents communicate and lead a polarized, fragmented country.

“I used to firmly believe that the bully pulpit only had one microphone,” said Mike McCurry, White House press secretary for President Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s. “But in the age of new media, that’s probably changed. There is one ‘conversation’ in the mainstream media at any hour, but there are hundreds of them coursing across the Web.”

You get the sense that this is a story driven by complaints from inside the big white house. White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer concedes that the Internet has him scratching his head about what "communications" means any more:

"There have been fundamental shifts in how people consume news and information," said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director. Among his most urgent tasks, he added, was "cracking the code."