Alter also pointed to a difference in style between the respective approaches to the pundits of Obama and Bill Clinton, also a Democrat but a very different kind of cat in dealings with journalists. “He doesn’t really kiss our ass, and I respect him for that,” Alter said of Obama. Clinton, even though he seemed at heart to despise the press, sometimes flattered the pundits—“He’s just a seducer in every part of his life,” Alter noted.
But while Obama may be a soft or even an indifferent seller, he had by his side in his first two years in office a salesman extraordinaire—his irrepressible chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. Now Chicago’s mayor, he was a legend among the pundits for a morning to midnight full-court press (usually pushing column ideas) via the telephone, e-mail, and face-to-face talk-fests. During the health care debate, for example, Emanuel pounded home the notion that the lack of a public option shouldn’t be a litmus test for whether any final piece of legislation truly was progressive or not. (His successor, William Daley, is more apt to leave such outreach to others in the White House.)
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.