The selling and selling and selling of the president

The president has taken a fair amount of heat for this full-saturation approach. Friends and critics alike have complained it cheapens his words, erodes his mystique, and, worst of all, smacks of desperation. “You don’t have to be on television every minute of every day,” cracked Bill Maher recently. “You’re the president, not a rerun of Law & Order.” Yet it’s also clear that the public has a near-insatiable appetite for Obama-related content, from the trivial to the serious. Dreams From My Father is now in its 156th week on the New York Times’ best-seller list. Bill Burton, a White House deputy press secretary, tells me that he fields almost as many phone calls from the celebrity press as from the Washington Post, as if the president were George Clooney. “And they call about things that might surprise you,” he adds. “Like when Tom Daschle withdrew his nomination.” (You know your president’s a headliner when E! is interested in cabinet resignations.)

With unemployment at 9.5 percent and the most ambitious public-policy initiative to sell since the creation of Medicare, it’s a decided plus for Obama to be lumped into the same category as a box-office star. Indeed, the president’s personal popularity, still hovering at 58 percent, may be one of the few weapons he has left. As Republicans are fond of noting (usually with some frustration), so long as the public still likes him personally, it’ll remain open to his agenda—at least in theory. “If you poll a question about a policy in an anodyne, sterile way, you’ll often find that Barack Obama’s positions are inversely proportional to his popularity,” notes Gillespie. “But if you say it’s President Obama’s policy, it pulls the numbers right back up.”…

It’s a steady beat of press conferences and town halls and YouTube addresses—a communications lollapalooza, rain or shine. It’s messaging not just as a means to an end, but as a kind of end itself. Three weeks ago, Obama wrote his second op-ed about the economy for the Washington Post. It drew a few raised eyebrows from the blogosphere, as if repeating this gesture so early in his presidency were trivializing his position. But the only surprise—not even a surprise, really, so much as inadvertent note of comedy—was the understated bio that ran below: The writer is president of the United States.

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