Why Obama is turning back to TV, despite big success in new media

On Monday, he doled out four one-on-one interviews with local TV station anchors. In the 2008 campaign, he used new media to build his national movement.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama is seen in a television monitor as he outlines his fiscal policy during an address at George Washington University on April 13.

President Obama, who made his name in new media during the 2008 election cycle, is burnishing some old media tools this time around.

Over the past two months, he has chatted with a dozen or so local TV affiliates across the United States. Just on Monday, he doled out four one-on-one interviews with station anchors in Denver; Raleigh, N.C.; Dallas; and Indianapolis. These cities are in states that could be important in the 2012 election, say political strategists, who are keeping close watch on the early stages of the presidential race.

Despite some bumps in the process – Mr. Obama tweaked the Dallas anchor for interrupting him during a testy exchange over Obama’s ratings in a Republican stronghold – the president is largely getting high marks for the tactic.

“It’s wise on his part,” says Charles Dunn, author of “The Seven Laws of Presidential Leadership,” who says Obama’s biggest challenge is his image. “The president has a connectivity problem with the rank-and-file voters,” he says. Anything that can break down an aura of condescension that just doesn’t seem to lift off this former Ivy leaguer is strategically important, he adds.

Obama spent much time building a national fan base and national movement behind his name and mission in 2008, notes Brendan Kownacki, director of strategic innovation at Merge Creative Media. Social media were crucial in that success, he points out, largely because the president was an unknown junior senator who needed to mount a national push to get known.

But this time around, he says via e-mail, “the contest for the GOP nomination ... is already heating up and includes many names that don't necessarily have national recognition yet, like Mitch Daniels or Chris Christie among the possible contenders.”

So, he writes, while the GOP fights to establish a name that can resonate nationwide, “the president is free to get back to his voters, and focus more intimately on communities and regions rather than trying to build his name across the whole country (who already know who he is).”

Local media strategies will be key to both sides in the 2012 election, says media expert Jonathan Askin at Brooklyn Law School. While the old truism that all politics is local may not always be true for presidential races, he says, it will be this time.

The difference is social media, he says. “With old media tools, local press, radio and TV, it was difficult for a candidate to wage a nationwide, local strategy ...,” he says via e-mail. “The Internet finally makes local campaigning, with national themes and local messaging, effective for presidential politics.”

Social-media entrepreneurs and strategists have figured out how to harness the Internet for hyperlocal purposes, he adds.

However, overexposure is a big drawback of penetrating local markets early and often, says media strategist David Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision, a public-relations and political-consulting firm based in Atlanta. “It is a bit early,” he says, adding that overexposure can lead to voters tuning his message out.

But, says Charles Meeker, the Democratic mayor of Raleigh, the president is welcome in his town anytime. “President Obama is one of the most well-spoken and articulate politicians on the scene today,” he says, adding that Obama can only help his own candidacy and the Democrats in general by an appearance in a local market.

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