At the same time, this administration, just like its predecessors, shamelessly uses every perk at its disposal to win pundits’ favor. Take state dinner invitations, the most treasured party pass in Washington. The scorecard is running at two invites for Thomas Friedman of The New York Times (India and China affairs), and one each for Zakaria (India), Dionne (Germany), David Ignatius of The Washington Post (China), Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times (China), and James Fallows of The Atlantic (China). At the reception line, the pundit is typically introduced by the president to the state leader guest of honor as one of America’s most important journalists. Picture the pundit’s spouse beaming with pride.
The White House can also offer a ride on Air Force One, the ultimate symbol of presidential power and luxury. Back in February 2009, five columnists got to join Obama for a flight back to Chicago—Dionne and Brownstein along with Clarence Page of The Chicago Tribune, Kathleen Parker of The Washington Post, and Bob Herbert, then of The New York Times. Then there were the eighteen holes that Friedman, whom the president has consulted on Middle East policy, enjoyed with Obama on an Andrews Air Force Base golf course back in the fall of 2009.
And, maybe best of all, there’s the book plug. Many pundits write books, whose sales can’t be hurt by an endorsement from the Reader in Chief. Typical of his predecessors, Obama or his aides occasionally lets it be known what the president is reading; the titles have included Alter’s Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope and Zakaria’s The Post-American World, which he was photographed holding during the campaign. (The New York Times website published the image under the headline, “What Obama Is Reading.”) “Our authors have definitely benefited from President Obama’s endorsements,” said Jonathan Karp, publisher of Simon & Schuster, who noted that Alter’s fdr book became a trade paperback best-seller “largely as a result” of being on Obama’s list.
The attention Obama lavishes on pundits’ books can be surprisingly durable. Though he has been referring to Friedman’s 2008 book Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—and How It Can Renew America since he ran for president, in August 2009, it was included on Obama’s official vacation book list. The president, a Harvard Law graduate, is not known to be a slow reader.
What if anything, then, is Obama getting for all this scripted attention devoted on the pundits? The question is difficult to answer if only because no self-respecting columnist will ever admit to pulling punches to stay in the White House’s good graces.
“Some columnists are spinnable,” said Peter Baker, a White House reporter for The New York Times, who explained that, on occasions, a pundit (he declined to name names) will write a column almost exactly parroting some recent background briefing from senior officials.
Indeed, on occasion, a column is written that seems helpful to Obama when he needs it most. This spring, Obama received sharp criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike for being way too tough on the Israelis after declaring that negotiations with the Palestinians should begin from the 1967 borders. On May 25, Zakaria supportively disagreed, weighing in with a column strongly defending Obama’s position and arguing that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should actually be “thanking” the president for “publicly condemning the Palestinian strategy to seek recognition as a state from the UN.” Zakaria made no mention in the column of his private meetings with Obama to talk about the Middle East. (He did not respond to requests for an interview, but has said elsewhere that he has refrained from advising Obama “on a specific policy or speech or proposal.”)
It’s also true that Obama has often taken criticism from pundits he has courted, including on a persistently biting basis from Krugman, not just a columnist but a Nobel Prize winning economist, whose ideas the president has openly solicited and with whom he has privately met in the White House at least once. The debt-ceiling deal reached in August was “an abject surrender on the part of the President,” Krugman wrote. Obama did not win over David Brooks on health care or on the administration’s economic stimulus package, and he took a mocking shot from golf-buddy Friedman for caving to Republicans and opening more federal lands for oil exploration. “Great: Let’s make America even more dependent on an energy resource,” Friedman wrote in May. Zakaria has cast skepticism on Obama’s Libya engagement, bluntly warning of “mission creep.”