Last week, the Washington Post‘s David Ignatius wrote about one of the odder White House briefings he’s attended. This one involved Iran: “The White House chose an unusual way to send its signals to Tehran. A small group of journalists was invited to a ‘background session’ on Iran policy with ‘senior National Security Staff.’ The briefer turned out to be Obama. An official said later that the president plans more of these unscripted, informal meetings.”
Ignatius is right. It was a bit odd, and White House senior staff, including chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, will have President Obama doing more of them. “It isn’t because we want to have him show off how smart he is,” says a White House source. “It’s to blunt criticism that he’s not engaged in foreign policy.”
According to White House sources, a number of senior Obama officials are concerned about anecdotal stories going around town about the President’s seeming disengagement on foreign policy issues. They cite one in which the President is said to have cut short what was intended to be a briefing on Afghanistan. “The NSC guys came out of it and said that because there were no action items, he didn’t want it,” said another White House source.
While not specific to foreign policy, there is a mounting whispering campaign in Washington about the current President’s disenchantment with the job he currently holds. “You hear it a lot from White House staff,” says a Democrat lobbyist in the financial services sector, who worked on the Obama transition team. “The President is tired of dealing or bored with all the B.S., or that things haven’t broken the way he wanted and it’s not shaping up to be the job that he thought it was going to be. The way some of them talk they make the President sound like a recent college graduate unhappy with his first job stuck in the mailroom.”
The fact that it appeared in early August that the President and First Lady were essentially taking separate vacations — him to Chicago to celebrate his birthday, her to Spain — didn’t help the overall narrative the White House had been trying to shape for their “summer of recovery.”
“The Bush guys have their ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner and we have our ‘Summer of Recovery,” says a current White House communications aide. “We deserve to take some hits for that.”
To that end, the White House communications team is said to be working on a fall media assault that will show a more engaged and energized President Obama. There are discussions about offering all-day access to the major broadcast networks and some friendly cable outlets for “behind the scenes” specials.
“We tend to have more editorial control or at least creative control of those kinds of segments,” says the comms aide. “We set the day’s agenda, they just cover it like it’s a real day.”