Thursday, April 23, 2009

Media Cover Obama Like He’s Ultimate A-List Celebrity

By Stuart Rothenberg

For the national media, Barack Obama isn’t merely the president of the United States. He’s so much more than that.

Obama is a celebrity, and he and his family are covered that way. That means there is a heavy focus on the personal, making Obama the first “Entertainment Tonight president.”

First, it was Michelle’s wardrobe. Then, it was the kids’ school. Then it was Michelle’s White House vegetable garden. And most recently, it is the new dog, Bo.

As befitting the pet of an international celebrity, Bo-mania is an international phenomenon. AFP, the French news agency, reported Tuesday a “surge of interest in the pedigree in Britain,” after the announcement about the Obamas’ new Portuguese water dog.

“We frequently see the popularity of certain breeds soar once people have seen them being bought by their favorite celebrities,” said a spokeswoman for Britain’s Kennel Club.

Note that the Kennel Club spokeswoman said “celebrities.” First the Beckhams, then the Osbournes and now the Obamas. But you would have to be more than a little naive to believe that the White House isn’t helping feed the media beast. Washington Post staff writer Manuel Roig-Franzia’s April 12 piece showed that the White House had orchestrated a series of “exclusives,” giving the garden story to the New York Times and the dog story to the Post.

It’s hard to know what hard news story the public relations folks inside the administration will think of next. Maybe re-paint the kids’ rooms? How about new bikes for the whole family? That’s sure to be a big story. There are a lot of bike riders around the country, and bicycling involves physical fitness and the environment at the same time.

I know there isn’t much happening in the world these days — other than the North Koreans exporting their nuclear technology to the Middle East, growing authoritarianism in South America and the budget deficit — so it’s understandable that the media are so locked in on the Obamas.

Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot. The media are paying plenty of attention to those pirates off the coast of Somalia. You know, those swashbuckling romantic heroes who evoke memories of great pirates of the past, including Tyrone Power (“The Black Swan,” 1942, with Maureen O’Hara), Johnny Depp (“Pirates of the Caribbean,” 2003, with Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly) and Roberto Clemente (Pittsburgh Pirates, 1955-1972, .317 lifetime batting average).

But back to something really important, such as Portuguese water dogs.

If you run through the recent Obama topics (e.g., the garden, the dog), you would have to say the Obama family’s life resembles a couple of episodes from “The Dick Van Dyke Show” of the 1960s. (In fact, episodes 7 and 130 of that series dealt with dogs in the Petrie household.)

Actually, some inside-the-Beltway friends of mine have been comparing Obama to Vincent Chase, the lead character in the popular (and extremely hip) HBO series “Entourage,” which tells the story of a young actor (not yet president) who becomes something of a celebrity and his hangers-on.

His entourage includes his often-over-the-top brother, Johnny “Drama” Chase (played, some think, in the case of Obama, by Vice President Joseph Biden); Turtle, his chunky gofer-buddy from childhood who’ll do whatever Vince needs done (played by Communications Director Robert Gibbs); his reasonably sane friend and manager, Eric (played by strategist David Axelrod); and his hyperaggressive, hyperkinetic agent, Ari Gold (played by Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel).

The Ari Gold character, of course, is patterned after super-agent Ari Emanuel, Rahm’s real-life brother. Ari Emanuel reps Mark Wahlberg, an actor and ex-rapper who is the executive producer of “Entourage.”

Fans of “Entourage” even note that a dog played a role in the series pilot. (One scary thought: Johnny Drama bought a horse in one episode, an obvious possible storyline for the Obamas because all young girls seem to go through a pony stage.)

The line between fiction and reality is going to fade even more, according to the Hollywood Reporter, when Michelle Obama’s hairstylist, Johnny Wright, gets his own television “reality” show. (Will Michelle make an appearance?)

Is there a serious political angle to all of this Obama celebrity talk? There is.

In encouraging all of the celebrity coverage (journalists don’t need much encouragement given the public’s apparent unquenchable need for gossip), the White House surely is trying to keep Obama’s appeal high among those Americans who really don’t care a great deal about politics.

Being celebrities gives the Obamas a bigger audience, and probably deeper emotional commitments, than many politicians receive. Even if the economy doesn’t recover completely and Obama’s policy proposals stir up opposition, he could retain his popularity — and, with it, political clout on Capitol Hill — because of his (and his family’s) celebrity coverage and appeal.

That’s not a bad thing for a president proposing one of the most ambitious agendas ever, or for journalists looking for a way to get a byline.

This column
first appeared in Roll Call on April 20, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.