Using The Bully Pulpit

With the Congress out of town for over two weeks around Easter, the Obama White House has had the chance to dominate the news cycle in the second half of April. How well have they done?

To me, one of the best tests of any White House is how well they manage the news while the Congress is out of town – do they stick with the script, or do they get distracted by other events?

As lawmakers left for Easter, the White House focus was on the budget, as Mr. Obama had just rolled out his own outline of how best to deal with the debt and deficit, drawing a sharp contrast with GOP budget plans.

“I believe their vision is wrong for America,” the President said in his April 16 radio address.

As the week of April 18 began, the White House scheduled four interviews for Mr. Obama with local TV stations, giving him the chance to drive home his budget arguments.

Instead – because of an off the cuff rebuke to a Dallas TV reporter – Mr. Obama got some attention on a completely different story.

“Let me finish my answers,” was what dominated the headlines on the internet – not exactly in the game plan of the White House Press Office.

On April 19, the focus was a town hall meeting in Virginia, where Mr. Obama was able to focus again on the budget, zeroing in on GOP plans to change Medicare.

“That would fundamentally change Medicare as we know it,” Mr. Obama said to applause, “and I’m not going to sign up for that.”

For the White House, that was a theme they tried to push in unison with Democrats for much of this Congressional break. Will it work? That’s an answer for the long term.

The next three days of last week, the President was on the road out West. He got a lot of attention doing a Facebook Town Hall in California – then the focus turned to 2012, with three Democratic fundraisers in San Francisco.

“We started something in 2008; we haven’t finished it yet,” the President said to backers. “And I’m going to need you to help me finish it.”

But instead of getting a positive message from those events, the news focused on a group of Democratic protesters, who heckled the President, singing a song that blasted the imprisonment of Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, accused of leaking U.S. government documents to Wikileaks.

“That was a nice song,” a somewhat irked President said. “Now where was I?”

Staying on the road, Mr. Obama next went to a town hall labeled “Shared Responsibility and Shared Prosperity” in Reno, Nevada, followed by three more fundraisers in Los Angeles, still focused on GOP budget plans.

As he flew back to Washington on Air Force One on Friday, most of the news of his trip had been focused on his campaign efforts, rather than policy.

On Monday, the pictures from the White House were of the Easter Egg Roll – but inside the Press Briefing Room – the questions were also about Easter, and the failure of the White House to issue a proclamation celebrating Easter.

Trust me – the White House Press Office churns out all kinds of statements for religious holidays that you have never heard of – but for Easter 2011, none was to be found.

“You know, the President went to the church yesterday; it was well covered,” said Press Secretary Jay Carney, who took some flak for his answer. “I’m not sure if we put out a statement or not, but he obviously personally celebrated Easter with his family and went to church.”

It wasn’t the worst kind of mis-step, but it again gave critics something to talk about – other than the White House message.

On Tuesday, the White House went full throttle on gas prices, going on the attack against Republicans in Congress over tax breaks for Big Oil. It was one of the few times that the White House seemed to be on offense, drawing sharp GOP rebukes along the way.

But then came Wednesday, a day that featured a sit down with Oprah Winfrey on the schedule – which would not produce any video until the show is aired next Monday – along with another series of big money fundraisers in New York.

But that script wasn’t what would produce the news for the day.

At 7am, the White House leaked the news of a Cabinet shuffle, which everyone has been waiting weeks for, as Defense Secretary Gates will leave the Pentagon, CIA Chief Panetta will take his place and Afghan commander Gen. David Petraeus will return to run the CIA.

Suddenly, 90 minutes later, the White House was distributing materials about the President’s birth certificate, as Mr. Obama himself appeared in the White House Briefing Room just over an hour after that.

The President lectured reporters for paying too much attention to the issue of his birth, and not on serious issues of the day that need difficult political solutions.

“We’re not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers,” Mr. Obama said in what seemed to be a veiled swipe at Donald Trump, who has raised the issue repeatedly in recent weeks.

“Did he only talk about his birth certificate at the briefing room?” a Republican Press Secretary frantically emailed me, incredulous that nothing was mentioned about the CIA or Pentagon jobs.

Later in the day, the White House held a conference call for reporters by a Senior Administration Official on the Panetta/Petraeus change, further muddying the message for the day, as the news was dominated by the birth certificate story.

While some might think that’s awful, there were liberals who were very pleased at the pushback on the “birther” story, arguing it makes that issue even more of a marginal one.

In fact, the President seemed to enjoy bringing up the birth certificate story at his fundraisers, drawing cheers from supporters along the way.

“My name is Barack Obama; I was born in Hawaii, I’m president of the United States, and I’m running for re-election,” he said at one stop.

Has it been a good two weeks for the White House while Congress is out of town? Has the Obama Administration stayed on message?

The basic answer is that there have been distractions for the White House, but on the election front, they are certainly raising big time money, and dominating a GOP field that hasn’t even taken shape as yet.

Discipline isn’t easy when it comes to a White House message, especially in the age of the internet and the 24-hour news cycle.

But when you have the chance to dominate the news with the Congress out of town, you can’t afford to drop the ball.  Was it time to release the birth certificate?

That answer probably depends on whether you think it was an important story to address while the Congress was out of town.