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President Obama Versus the CW Machine, Round One

BY Peter Daou | Thursday, February 5 2009

A striking fact about the current political environment is that despite the ground-breaking Democratic victory on November 4th - whose seeds were planted by progressive online activists - the new administration is dealing with an oddly familiar political brew: the "liberal media" mantra is rekindled, conservative talk radio (i.e. anti-liberal radio) is resurgent, Rush Limbaugh is more relevant than ever, Ann Coulter is once again doing the network rounds, and if online commentary over the past month is any indication, many progressives still feel disconnected from the levers of power.

The assumption that the new presidency would transform the political process, usher in an era of unprecedented citizen empowerment and decimate the old conventional wisdom-making machinery, has been undermined by the reality of entrenched power structures, deep-seated rivalries, die-hard habits and Beltway business as usual.

That's not to say that the election of President Obama isn't momentous - it is - nor is it meant to detract from the astonishing advances in the use of technology to enhance voter participation. And certainly from a policy perspective, we've already seen tangible results of a Democratic presidency, from Gitmo to SCHIP to Lilly Ledbetter to an inspiring and long-overdue bluntness about the obscenities of executive compensation. [I remarked in a recent post that the first week of Obama's presidency was as surreal as the first week of Bush's, one for the departure from sane government, the other for the return to it.]

Things have changed. But the dynamics and tensions of the past decade remain firmly in play: rightwing noise machine (albeit denuded) versus progressive activists, old-school pundits and politicians versus online powerhouses, netroots versus DLC, frustrated outsiders versus back-scratching insiders, partisanship versus bi/post-partisanship, media versus bloggers, and so on. This isn't entirely surprising: political mechanisms change, human nature doesn't.

Which brings me to the point of this post: President Obama's Internet acumen - and that of his advisers - won't protect him from the formidable Conventional Wisdom Machine. I'll take as my starting point a piece from Chris Cillizza in which he offers a counterintuitive take on events of the past week. Counterintuitive in the sense that the week has not played out according to the script he elucidates, a script, it should be noted, that has lots of credence among political observers:

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama and his team learned a very important lesson that they are seeking to put into practice in the White House: the power of the media is overrated. Time and again during the campaign, Obama used his burgeoning grassroots army -- now more than 13 million email addresses strong -- to push out the message that he wanted to dominate the day rather than the message the media was focused on. Utilizing You Tube and a variety of other social networking media, Obama was able to speak directly to his supporters and, as importantly, to undecided voters about the issues of the day.

That strategy has carried over in the White House, the most striking example of which has been the use of YouTube to turn a non-news event -- the weekly Saturday radio address -- into a newsmaker. And this week, in the midst of a self-inflicted mini-crisis regarding the withdrawals of Nancy Killefer and Tom Daschle, Obama was at it again. In an email -- with an accompanying YouTube video from Obama -- campaign manager David Plouffe urged support for the president's economic stimulus plan. "You can help make sure the American people have all the facts so they can support this crucial effort to boost our struggling economy," wrote Plouffe. "The President is leading. Help is on the way."

Because of Obama's reach -- 13 million email addresses is a stunning number -- these sorts of tactics (Daschle? Daschle who?) have the potential to quickly re-focus the American public on the economic stimulus package rather than allow people to linger on the Daschle withdrawal and what it says about Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and the president's judgment more broadly. All of that is not to say the media doesn't have a role to play. But, Obama has a unique ability to end-run the media filter and use technology to make it stick.

In reality, events have unfolded very differently. That's not surprising; the role of the web has been misstated in the campaign and it is being overestimated in the post-campaign period. On TechPrez, Zephyr Teachout makes an important point regarding the latter:

Organizing for America sent out a request for house parties today, asking people to watch a video about Obama's economic recovery plan, talk about it with their friends, and build support for it. While there will be tweaks, this is the kind of action we can anticipate from OFA. I predict that there will be perhaps a thousand of such parties, then hundreds, then dozens. I think OFA will fail in its mission to directly engage Obama supporters in supporting Obama's executive actions. And I think this is a very good thing.

It will fail because Obama--suiting a President--is not oppositional, conflict-driven, and not likely to pick out particular targets to be won over--all things that are likely to engage people. It will fail because it is from OFA, not from Obama. And it will fail because OFA cannot be a new democratic party, but will have a hard time defining what it is, and what kind of real power ought exist at every level of the organization.

This is a good thing because it is not intended to be a representative organization, where people have real power.

In a piece where I argued that the only truly revolutionary aspect of the Internet in the 2008 campaign was the emerging power of the online commentariat I wrote, "the truth is that the Obama campaign was a triumph of integration more than technological innovation. It was the wildly successful marriage of time-tested political strategies and tactics, executed with acumen and discipline, seamlessly combined with cutting-edge technology and tied together with an empowering grassroots message. With a brilliant candidate at the helm."

What I left out of that description is the relationship of Obama and other candidates to the media during the 2008 race. Among many other things they did well, the Obama team surfed two cresting media/Internet waves, an anti-Clinton wave and an anti-Bush wave. Lest the point be misconstrued as blaming the media for Clinton's loss or as a criticism of the Obama team, it's neither. The Obama campaign expertly utilized the media environment to their advantage, maximized their strengths, minimized their weaknesses, targeted their opponents' vulnerabilities and wielded their grassroots empowerment message as a potent communications weapon.

The deftness with which Obama handled media relations and managed public perceptions has complicated the typical media bias equation, both from the right and left. Conservatives now trumpet a newly rejuvenated 'liberal media' argument, but they need only look at some of the reprehensible coverage of Hillary Clinton to rethink their point. Furthermore, those who argue that there is an unmistakable pro-Obama tilt in the media should keep in mind that when Obama was all but written off after trailing by double digits in late 2007, the media hardly favored him. And when Sarah Palin exploded onto the scene, and before her rollout imploded, similar headlines reemerged casting Obama as lost and listless. By the same token, it's more difficult for progressive media watchers to claim a wholesale rightwing media tilt when Obama clearly received lots of favorable coverage (even if he got it by running a great campaign) and when he won the race.

Either way, although media-bashing is a common sport - which I confess to have indulged in - and even though it's de rigueur online to relish the demise of traditional media business models, in the end, the proclivities and personal beliefs of individual reporters matter less than many political analysts think they do. The political press is just one piece of the CW Machine, which is comprised of pundits, editorialists, reporters, politicians, elected officials, public figures, TV anchors, radio hosts, comedians and the ever-growing ranks of online commenters, working either in tandem or in opposition. When the CW Machine gets cranking, when cable chatter gets going, when Balz and Broder, Gergen and Todd, Brooks and Dowd, Maddow, Scarborough and Mitchell, Halperin and Tapper, Allen and Smith, Leno, Stewart and Letterman, blogs and talk radio, YouTube and Twitter start buzzing, no amount of Internet prowess and no single email list can offset it.

Obama's Internet savvy cannot overcome the CW Machine. The grassroots infrastructure his campaign built may be able to influence some of the commentary, alter portions of the debate and mitigate some of the effects, but overall, the CW Machine, composed of myriad online and offline components, will grind away and do its business, larger than any one candidate, leader, party or movement.

Ultimately, the grand political battle in the coming years will be the same as it's always been: a contest over the shaping and reshaping of public perceptions -- both with respect to politics and policy. For Democrats, taking comfort in Obama's online successes during the campaign is a losing bet: in recent days, Republicans have demonstrated that despite being in the minority and clearly behind in the Internet game, it's possible for the CW Machine to work in their favor.

If hindering the Democratic agenda by exploiting missteps is a core mission for Republicans, Democrats would do well to note how effectively Republicans have done just that in the nascent days of the Obama presidency and how unpredictably the CW Machine has operated (or how predictably for those who are less sanguine about the fungibility of a web-fueled grassroots campaign).

Perhaps the best strategy in light of all this is simply to govern based on solid Democratic principles and let the results - and history - trump the CW Machine.