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Media themes in the age of Obama



Symphonic compositions have their overarching themes, and so does media coverage of a presidential era. The repetitions may start slowly and subtly, but they build momentum on the basis of themselves and arc out from there into a full-blown thematic opus.

A couple of months into the Obama presidency, the media themes are flowing into more unified torrents. Maybe you’re heard that we should keep wondering whether President Obama is trying to do too much at once. This easily leads into a canned set of melodies; either he should focus on the economy, or he must take on matters such as health care, energy and education because everything is part of everything else.

Obama’s prime-time news conference last week was a showcasing of his workmanlike approach to governance — and to being “presidential” in front of TV cameras. It’s hard to argue with the guy because he sounds so logical so much of the time.

The grave and steady demeanor has been a natural invitation for myriad stories about the burdens of the office. This theme got a jolt of energy a few weeks ago when front-page stories told of how Obama’s hair had grown noticeably more gray after just a few weeks in the White House.

This taps into a longstanding thematic aspect of how news media tend to cover the man in the Oval Office. Consciously or not, the president is often rendered as the ultimate protector of the national family. Even if he doesn’t have a paternalistic effect, the news media are apt to project one onto him — and it’s a role that seems to prove nearly irresistible.

Cast as the nation’s big daddy, the president is bound to take up some of the ambience of the role. The mortal limitations of the president, therefore, are likely to get lost in the media shuffle. That the job is just too big for one man should be self-evident. Yet the job belongs to one man.

An early theme of the Obama presidency — sometimes used to placate or reassure supporters on the left who began to despair about his corporate Cabinet appointments — had to do with the idea that the president calls the shots and his underlings must defer to presidential edicts.

In the real world, however, the vast quantities of decisions that must be made every day in the executive branch make it impossible for one person to thoroughly guide and monitor policymaking. On the economic front — a realm of tremendous complexity — Obama threw the lot of his presidency in with the likes of Timothy Geithner, now Treasury secretary, and economic adviser Lawrence Summers.

These thoroughly corporate creatures are, like most of us, creatures of (thought) habit. Obama chose his advisers and thus chose his advice. The drift toward disaster of federal economic policymaking now underway (and I write this as someone who was an Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention) owes its foreshadowed patty-cake with Wall Street to the sensibilities that put people like Geithner and Summers in charge of economic policies.

There were, of course, many progressive experts available for the top economic jobs — professor James K. Galbraith and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, to name just two. But they would hardly have been greeted with the magnitude of media adulation that initially greeted Obama’s top economic appointees.

While the AIG debacle has generated plenty of media uproar during the last three weeks, the systemic power and routine multibillion-dollar taxpayerfunded subsidies of such megafirms have been more accepted in medialand. Hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses sparked outrage, but hundreds of billions of dollars have been rendered in the media spotlight as relative abstractions.

During the last two months, we’ve heard the gathering themes of the journalistic overture for the Obama presidency. And the media orchestra is tuning up for the movements ahead.

©2009 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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