Obama Taps Local TV Anchors to Send ACA Message

Obama Taps Local TV Anchors to Send ACA Message
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It began during the weekend with a surprise email from the White House: Six local TV anchors and camera crews from around the country discovered they’d been invited to interview President Obama on Wednesday, and receive VIP briefings from top Obama advisers.

They had not requested the interviews. But Obama wanted to spend four minutes with each reporting team to discuss the minimum wage and the March 31 deadline for Affordable Care Act enrollment.

He also reassured KARE-TV anchor Julie Nelson during their meeting that “ultimately we’re not going to go to war with Russia. The Ukrainians don’t want that. We don’t want that.” And he told the Minneapolis newswoman that Russian President Vladimir Putin “is acting out of weakness, not of strength.” Obama rejected Nelson’s question that he had drawn a line in the sand with Putin over Ukraine. “What we have said is not to draw lines in the sand,” the president countered, noting that sanctions against Russia were intended to compel a diplomatic solution.

And he repeated to KSDK-TV (St. Louis) anchor Mike Bush that U.S. military action to defend Ukraine is not on the table.

On a rainy day in Washington, the TV crews from Boston, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Dallas, Phoenix and San Diego earned red-carpet treatment from the president’s aides and top advisers. But first their visit began with dogs Bo and Sunny, who casually padded through the Diplomatic Reception Room for Twitter and Facebook photos that the White House Press Office banks on to capture local interest.

The president’s policy themes -- that it won’t cost jobs if the minimum wage rises to $10.10, and uninsured Americans should get health coverage before March 31 -- blossomed into what his aides call “Live at the White House.” The day spent behind the scenes included one-on-one interviews with Domestic Policy Adviser Cecelia Munoz, and with Sam Kass, taped in the White House kitchen to describe Michelle Obama’s health and fitness projects (he’s both a chef and executive director of Let’s Move!).

The news crews spoke with White House Curator Bill Allman about the history of the diplomatic room, where the interviews took place. He told them the rug included representations of 50 states, but Allman really captured their attention when he mentioned the massive professional football players and a wrestler who sat on the antique early-American furniture, necessitating some restorations.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney got into the act by chatting in his office (off the record) with the out-of-town visitors. He told the White House press corps during his daily briefing that he valued pushing the president’s message out to people “where they live,” an attraction to local journalism that he said he may have overlooked when covering the White House for Time magazine.

“I mean no disrespect by saying this, but when I was a member of the national media, I did not understand as clearly as I do now how impactful and important a source of news local television is, and certainly, local newspapers are,” he told the national correspondents -- who rarely or never get a chance to interview Obama.

All presidents like the idea of going over the heads of the pesky reporters who dog their every move, searching for friendlier questioners beyond Washington’s Zip codes. But the questions from the hinterlands are not always softballs, and the resulting coverage is not always what the White House imagined. Last year, for example, Dallas anchor Brad Watson of WFAA-TV asked Obama why he thought he was so unpopular in Texas, and cut into Obama’s windy responses enough to prompt some presidential pique. “Let me finish my answers the next time we do an interview, all right?” Obama sputtered.

Presidency scholar Martha Joynt Kumar of Towson University has written books about White House communications, and has witnessed numerous administrations reaching out to local media, including radio and television. It is a method that’s well known.

By the end of his fifth year in office, 28.1 percent of all of Obama’s interviews had been with local and regional media of all types, Kumar told RCP. That compares with President George W. Bush, who devoted 11 percent of his interviews to local reporters at the same point in his presidency. Bill Clinton’s slice was 45.2 percent, and Ronald Reagan’s was 19 percent. George H.W. Bush, who was not re-elected, came to value local and regional media in the last 18 months of his term, devoting 51 percent of all his interviews to journalists from local radio, TV and print publications.

As was true with previous presidents, human interest captures the public’s attention. Even in communities that didn’t vote for Obama and don’t favor his policies, there are always viewers who can’t resist presidential pets. That’s why Minnesota’s Nelson asked Obama which of his Portuguese water dogs he favors.

The president said he loves them equally, like his daughters. But here was a news flash: The first lady’s program to get kids more active could learn a thing or two from Sunny, whose boisterous personality prompted Bo to drop 10 pounds, Obama said, “just chasing her around.”

Minneapolis news viewers were destined to see the White House dogs. Oh, and the president, too.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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