The President’s TV Honeymoon Is Over

PRESIDENT OBAMA has, in recent weeks, earned a landslide, but by definition it’s not anything like the overwhelming victory he gained in the national election. It is more of a collapsing landslide, as he finds himself, thanks to the continuously gushing BP oil well, the subject of withering coverage by the national television media. The greater the spill’s flow, the more his once-historic media popularity ebbs.

“Day after day, you see the picture of the oil spewing out of the bottom of the ocean,” says Bob Schieffer, moderator of Face the Nation on CBS News. “And until that picture changes, it’s going to be a rough road for Barack Obama.”

“When you can see a live picture of oil spewing every single day, it adds a different sense of urgency and disaster to it,” says NBC’s Today host Matt Lauer. “I think it’s something that is very difficult for the administration and, clearly, BP to overcome.”

For a president who swept into office on a wave of multimedia mobilization, the spill is a wrenching economic and environmental disaster, and a rude awakening to the scorching power of pictures. Countless images of dead sea turtles and oil-drenched brown pelicans (the state bird of Louisiana) are glaring indications of the albatross the calamity has become around the neck of the president.

Democratic supporters including Donna Brazile (from Louisiana) and James Carville have voiced concern for what Carville said on CNN is the administration’s “go along with BP strategy.” And Keith Olbermann is ending his MSNBC show Countdown with the number of days since “the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster began.”

The narrative was cast early by the administration’s hesitancy to take ownership of the plague, and it has only gotten worse from there. “So much of the coverage nowadays is actually political coverage, not news coverage,” notes independent news analyst Andrew Tyndall. “Every story has to be shoehorned into winners and losers. So, the political angle they’re running with at the moment is not that Obama’s being incompetent, but that he isn’t projecting the right image of competence. It’s a hall of mirrors story.”

Obama’s reaction to the coverage hasn’t exactly endeared him. “This is not theater,” he told Lauer last week in Kalamazoo, Mich., repeating a talking point about being above the media horse race. “I don’t always have time to perform for the benefit of the cable shows.”

Commentators see Obama’s attempt to turn the lens back on the tragedy as akin to taking a defensive stance on his efforts thus far to stem the tide. And whether he’s exerting enough effort or is powerless to stop the flow, the images aren’t helping his case.

“People make their political decisions on what they see,” Schieffer says. “It’s a gut feeling; we all do it. We base it on anecdotal evidence. Just to see this oil spewing out day after day makes people very uneasy and uncomfortable.”

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