Riding The Airwaves While The Economic Storm Swirls

Z ON TV

March 22, 2009|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,david.zurawik@baltsun.com

As President Barack Obama extends his buy-my-economic-plans-please tour through 60 Minut es tonight and into Tuesday with a prime-time news conference, the question that begs to be asked is whether the president is spending enough time actually governing - as opposed to talking about governing on TV.

There is a difference. And as much as I - a TV critic and political blogger - welcome Obama's commitment to use of the tube, I worry as a citizen that he's not doing the nitty-gritty, late-night, closed-door, on-the-phone politicking that it takes to really govern this troubled land.

I'm talking about the kind of presidential grunt work that you hear Lyndon Johnson doing on those audiotapes C-SPAN radio plays on Saturday afternoons. And don't tell me about the fallacy of comparing the 1960s to today - bending senators to your will hasn't changed all that much. In fact, some of the same ones are still there 40 years later.

You have to admit, Obama has been on TV a lot lately, starting Wednesday of last week on ESPN with his picks for the NCAA basketball championship, an impromptu news conference on the way out of Washington and a town-hall meeting in California that was carried by all the cable news channels.

Then, there was a guest appearance on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno - and Garth Brooks - on Thursday. (At least, Leno didn't bring any guests over to the couch and make the president move down to make room nearest the late-night throne.)

On Friday, Obama followed that appearance by going back to the friendly confines of 60 Minutes for an extensive interview with Steve Kroft - the formula he used so winningly during the election when things got tough. That conversation airs tonight at 7 on CBS.

Tuesday night, he has another prime-time news conference scheduled, and there is yet more TV face-time after that, according to a report at Slate last week saying the White House is negotiating with the networks for airtime in 10-minute segments for TV versions of Franklin Roosevelt's Fireside Chats. The goal of the TV talks: to explain and sell Obama's economic proposals.

I'm sorry, but to me there was something disquieting about the fact that just as all hell was breaking loose in Washington over the economy, bonuses to A.I.G. executives and a Treasury Department under Timothy Geithner that was looking more and more clueless on Wednesday, Obama was shown on TV heading for Hollywood.

I am not the only one to notice. On the Fox News Channel, conservative show host Sean Hannity has been hammering away at the administration all week for the misstatements, reversals and outright contradictions over what administration officials and other leading Democrats knew and didn't know about the A.I.G. bonuses.

Nor was the criticism all partisan.

Wednesday night on CNN, the most responsible channel of news and analysis on cable TV, Campbell Brown offered a withering critique of the way Obama has managed the Treasury Department.

"Mr. Obama," she began, "has said the buck stops here. ... If that is true, Mr. President, then you have got to straighten out the mess at your Treasury Department."

Criticizing Geithner and Obama for not having a senior staff in place four months after the election, and for now having a department in which "things are falling through the cracks right and left," Brown urged Obama to show some managerial focus and muscle if Geithner can't or won't.

"If the problem is that Congress won't confirm your people, then you better become lobbyist-in-chief," the show host said. "Get on the phone, go to Capitol Hill, do what it takes to get your team in place."

Outside of an occasional misstep like his unfortunate comparison on The Tonight Show of his limitations as a bowler and the Special Olympics, Obama is by and large a superb TV performer. He and his advisers used the medium masterfully during the presidential campaign to ride a wave of anger about the economy and a downsized America into office.

That anger, however, has continued to build into a dangerous outrage in recent weeks and months. And now, perhaps, the only way for the president to stay on the right side of it is for him to get back on the TV tiger and ride it for all it is worth - insisting that he is angry, too, and that he has a set of plans that will see us through these dangerous times.

Meanwhile, though, back in Washington, who will be doing the real work of designing and implementing those plans so that last-minute loopholes aren't inserted by old-time politicians to protect their corporate contributors at taxpayer expense? Who will be doing the real work of governing - rather than performing nightly on our TV screens?

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