Out of the Tank

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MARCH 26, 2008

Out of the Tank

I didn't realize how beleaguered Barack Obama looked at his now-infamous Texas press conference until I flipped through some photos I'd taken. In the first, Obama wears a pleading expression and extends both arms forward. In the second, Obama's jaw is clenched and his eyes have retreated behind prominent bags. By the third, his eyes are closed and his lips are pursed--the face of a man about to explain something for the seventh time.

If the photos were drawings in a comic book, they might be accompanied by words like "Wap!" "Pow!" and "Kaboom!" Reporters jumped on Obama for his ties to Tony Rezko, the indicted Chicago real estate tycoon. They badgered him about reports that an adviser had disavowed his NAFTA stance to Canadian officials. The battering didn't even let up once Obama fled the podium. "That's the first time I've seen a press conference where he walked away from the mic and everyone was still asking questions," says one Obama beat reporter.

For the rest of the day, the cable networks breathlessly played clip after clip from the encounter. Wolf Blitzer suggested Obama was suddenly coming in for "sharper scrutiny" after "what some say was essentially a free ride." A Washington Post headline the next morning blared: ASK TOUGH QUESTIONS? YES, THEY CAN!

Is the press love affair with Obama really over? It might be--if only the relationship had ever been so simple.

 

There's no question that the tone of the Obama coverage shifted in the week or two before the March 4 primaries. This is something you would have noticed if, say, you happened to be one of the two dozen Americans who still rely on the nightly network broadcasts for political news. As the Post's Howard Kurtz has pointed out, the networks were unusually focused on Obama's ties to Rezko, his nearly 130 "present" votes in the Illinois Senate, and his close relationship with an Illinois energy company. This is not altogether a bad thing. "You had reporters who are sober-minded coming back from these [events] besotted, enthralled," says an editor involved in Obama coverage. "To the point that you were becoming concerned about, you know--do they feel like it's necessary for this guy to get nominated?"

Still, tone is hardly the same as substance. The same news outlets who have put up with slobbering correspondents have sicced investigative teams on Obama's biography for the better part of a year. "Everyone's been looking for a way in," says this editor. "It's just been thin gruel beyond a certain point."

It would likewise be a mistake to interpret the San Antonio press avail as some sort of Battle of Stalingrad. It wasn't so much a turning point as the product of idiosyncratic circumstances. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Carol Marin was the first to complain that Obama hadn't been forthcoming about Rezko. Then Mike Flannery, a correspondent for the Chicago CBS affiliate, groused about "unexplored details" of the Rezko connection. But Marin and Flannery don't regularly travel with Obama. They happened to be in Texas because it looked like their home-state senator was on the verge of winning the nomination. Unfortunately for Obama, their trip fell on the opening day of Rezko's corruption trial in Chicago. And both of those things happened to coincide with the sudden appearance of a Canadian government memo describing the NAFTA exchange.

In truth, the press hasn't turned on Obama. There are simply two different press corps covering him, and the crankier one carried the day in San Antonio. In some respects, the split resembles the now-familiar divide in the Democratic electorate between blue-collar voters and affluent liberals. The press's version of the lunch-pail set includes some of the local Chicago scribes, tabloid and wire-service reporters, cable TV and radio correspondents, and the ever-present "embeds"--the human production studios who race from stop to stop with all manner of equipment strapped to their backs. These are the people charged with chronicling every twist and turn of the campaign. If Obama abruptly cancels an Ohio event to spend the evening in Chicago, it's the working stiffs who know why. If the campaign claims to have raised no money from lobbyists, and a lobbyist's check turns up, these are the people who pounce.

The campaign's white-collar set includes many of the reporters at elite national newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post, newsweeklies like Time and Newsweek, and general-interest publications like The New Yorker; columnists from all of the above; and writers from political magazines like this one. To varying degrees, these people try to break news. But they tend to assume a more analytical posture than their counterparts. They also write at length about themes that sometimes make the lunch-pail set queasy--like personality tics and psychological motivations--as well as internal campaign dynamics and policy deliberations. The elites are stringing together a "larger narrative." The working stiffs generally live, if not from day to day, then week to week.

Like the voters, the two press groups can part company on Obama. The beer track cares most about transparency and regular contact. For months now, they've grumbled that Obama doesn't hold enough press conferences. They complain that he doesn't stroll back to their section of his airplane often enough. They get irked when Obama sneaks off to an event that didn't appear on their daily schedules. The unofficial mascot of this group is the Chicago Sun-Times' Washington bureau chief, Lynn Sweet, a dogged reporter who is respected but not loved within the Obama campaign. It was thanks in part to Sweet's complaints that the campaign recently agreed to provide a more complete schedule.

The wine track cares about access, too, but of a different kind. Though they're all in favor of regular press avails, what they really crave are exclusive interactions with Obama that might color their musings on his worldview, his political style, or his presidential potential.

It's not hard to see how these highfalutin ambitions might grate on blue-collar nerves. Some working stiffs note that Obama, when left to his own devices, seems to prefer the work of the elites. One observes that Obama is constantly working through a stack of newspapers, with The New York Times often on top (though Obama did recently comment to reporters that USA Today has gotten to be a "respectable paper"). These reporters say that Obama is unusually solicitous of Times columnist Maureen Dowd when she materializes on the campaign trail. They recall how he recently sidled up to her on the plane and remarked on her snazzy pair of boots.

The elites tend to dismiss this grumbling as so much sour grapes. "There are plenty of people who don't like the fact that certain reporters...get their questions answered in ways they don't," says Newsweek correspondent Richard Wolffe.

In some sense, the flare-up at the San Antonio press conference reflected this "class" divide. The access-starved worker-bees, who felt they'd been getting stiff-armed on Rezko and NAFTA-gate, lunged when they saw an opening. "A lot of these things build up," says one. "We hadn't had a media avail with him for four days." (An Obama press aide says there was a brief avail on the plane in between.) For his part, Wolffe doesn't see much substance to the critique. "The questioning at the press conference," he says, "was incredibly parochial. People asking, frankly, about themselves. ...'Why haven't you sat down with reporters?'"

 

It's well understood that Obama must hold his own among bluecollar voters to seize control of the nomination. He'll probably have to do the same with the "blue-collar" press. Though the karmic forces that created San Antonio may not converge again for a while, even a lesser grilling can exact a cost when endlessly looped on cable.

Obama's big advantage here is that, after all the months of petty frustrations, the working stiffs continue to see him as a likeable guy. And he's not above exploiting this reserve of goodwill. "He'll laugh, like 'You're so silly,'" says one. "Sort of a slap on the back--'You got it wrong, let me tell you why.'"

That seems to be the plan in this case, too. In Obama's telling, the press's recent friskiness was largely the result of Clinton mau-mauing. And so, on a plane ride out of Houston on primary day, Obama engaged in a little media criticism of his own. "I didn't expect that you guys would bite on that," he told reporters. "I am a little surprised that all the complaining about the refs has worked." It's never too early to instigate the backlash to the backlash.

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic.

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