Ronald Reagan said there's a secret to being a great performer: Leave the stage when the audience is still clamoring for more, so people look forward to seeing you again. Reagan, a former TV and movie actor, knew all about stagecraft, and he seemed to be giving good advice about the dangers of overexposure.
But Barack Obama has a different idea.
Over the span of a week, he addressed two town-hall meetings in California, appeared on NBC's Tonight Show With Jay Leno ( the first late-night talk show appearance by an incumbent president), hosted ESPN at the White House to discuss the NCAA basketball tournament, gave an interview to CBS's 60 Minutes, and held a prime-time news conference carried live by all the major television networks. All this was on top of a seemingly endless stream of presidential statements, speeches, and news media Q&As designed to promote his economic plan and show that he is pushing relentlessly for change.
Even before Obama left on his first presidential trip to Europe, putting him in the spotlight this week pretty much around the clock, some Washington veterans were saying that he risks diluting his effectiveness with overexposure. "He's in danger of wearing out his welcome," says a former adviser to a Republican president. In some ways, it's the downside of the bully pulpit—Theodore Roosevelt's concept that a president should aggressively try to shape public opinion by dominating the media. But few of TR's successors could match his skill at public relations.
Today, with the insatiable demand of the 24-hour television networks and the Internet for fresh information, a president is tempted to jump into the news flow more than ever. And as the most powerful man in the world, it's easy for him to command attention and use the biggest megaphone to drown out his adversaries. On the other hand, being such a big presence in people's lives has its drawbacks. Since he enters our living rooms, via TV, more often than some family members, an overexposed president can be relegated to being one voice (albeit a loud one) among many in the contemporary tower of Babel.
Obama strategists, however, say a president is at the peak of his power in his first year when the momentum of victory is still strong and he has maximum leverage with the public and Congress. That's when he needs to be as visible as possible to sell his agenda. "We're living in a unique time, and people are hungry for leadership," says a White House spokesman. "They want to know what the president is doing to address the tough challenges." This was demonstrated by the ratings for Obama's appearances on both Leno, where he drew the show's largest audience in more than four years, and 60 Minutes, which had its biggest viewership in a decade.
And, as Obama's handlers point out, he got where he is by breaking the old rules and defying conventional wisdom, like the theory that he couldn't stop Hillary Clinton's Democratic juggernaut. His strategists say the media are so fragmented that he needs to communicate to many different audiences in many different ways. Just as important, Americans are deeply worried about the economy, and they want to hear in detail how he intends to fix it, Obama strategists say.
Princeton historian Julian Zelizer observes that Obama risks overdoing it, though that's not a problem yet. "The public has a high tolerance of celebrity," he says. "It's the American Idol syndrome. And Obama is still in that realm where Americans like to hear from him—he's more a celebrity than a politician."
Obama's strategists have shown considerable PR savvy in choreographing his appearances. At his White House news conference, he spent large amounts of time explaining his economic plan and arguing that it is beginning to show success. "I'm a big believer in persistence," he told reporters.
With Leno on March 19, he emphasized his lighter touch. Joking about how his critics have rushed to judgment about how he's doing after only two months in office, Obama said, "I do think in Washington it's a little bit like American Idol, except everybody is Simon Cowell. Everybody's got an opinion. But that's part of what makes for a democracy."