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Obama image machine whirs as press access narrows

By Nancy Benac

Associated Press

Published: Monday, April 1 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

FILE – In this May 9, 2012, file photo President Barack Obama is seen on a video monitor in the White House briefing room in Washington during an interview with ABC, wherein Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage. During his first term Obama gave 674 interviews, TV, radio, Internet, print, compared to 217 and 191 for former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton respectively. With interviews the president has more power to choose his timing, questioners and format, in hopes of delivering a certain message in a setting that's not always hard-hitting.

Carolyn Kaster, File, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A photo of the Obamas hugging that was released on Election Day 2012 has become the world's most popular tweet on Twitter. A dressed-up version of Barack Obama's State of the Union speech, packed with charts and graphs, is huge on YouTube. A playful picture of the president cavorting with a 3-year-old in a Spiderman costume is a favorite online.

It's all courtesy of the Obama image machine, serving up a stream of words, images and videos that invariably cast the president as commanding, compassionate and on the ball. In this world, Obama's family is always photogenic, first dog Bo is always well-behaved and the vegetables in the South Lawn kitchen garden always seem succulent.

You'll have to look elsewhere for bloopers, bobbles or contrary points of view.

Capitalizing on the possibilities of the digital age, the Obama White House is generating its own content like no president before, and refining its media strategies in the second term in hopes of telling a more compelling story than in the first.

At the same time, it is limiting press access in ways that past administrations wouldn't have dared, and the president is answering to the public in more controlled settings than his predecessors. It's raising new questions about what's lost when the White House tries to make an end run around the media, functioning, in effect, as its own news agency.

Mike McCurry, who served as press secretary to President Bill Clinton, sees an inclination by the Obama White House to "self-publish," coupled with tactics "I never would have dreamed of in terms of restricting access" for independent news organizations.

"What gets lost are those revealing moments when the president's held accountable by the representatives of the public who are there in the form of the media," says McCurry.

Obama himself took note of complaints about limited access in his jokes last month at the Gridiron dinner, an annual event where political leaders, journalists and media executives poke fun at one another.

"Some of you have said that I'm ignoring the Washington press corps, that we're too controlling," Obama said. "You know what, you were right. I was wrong and I want to apologize — in a video you can watch exclusively at whitehouse.gov."

Three days later, it was no laughing matter when the White House live-streamed on the Internet Obama's meeting with his export council and allowed just one reporter in the room.

Still, the White House rejects the notion that it is turning to new media it can control at the expense of the old, instead describing an all-of-the-above strategy.

"From press conferences to interviews with national, regional and constituency press, to new social media platforms, we have worked to both expand the scope of communication and also deepen the level of engagement between the American people and the work of the White House," says Jamie Smith, deputy press secretary.

Statistics compiled by Martha Kumar, a political science professor at Towson University in Maryland who studies presidential communication, show how Obama's strategy has differed from his predecessors'.

In his first term, Obama engaged in 107 short question-and-answer sessions with reporters during events in the Oval Office, the Cabinet Room and similar settings. President George W. Bush, by contrast, had 354.

By the same token, though, Obama held twice as many solo press conferences as Bush: 36 compared to 17. And in the first term Obama did 674 interviews — TV, radio, Internet, print — compared to 217 for Bush and 191 for Clinton.

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