From Lincoln to Obama, Presidents as Propagandists

President Obama is exploiting new technologies to burnish his image, but the strategy may cause mistrust.

President Obama responds to a comment as he is introduced in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April 2, 2013. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) (National Journal)

My nephew's high school government class was studying propaganda, a word most students associated with Hitler, Goebbels, and the like. "I deal with propagandists every day," I told the class in the Detroit area last week. "They work in the White House and in Congress--Republicans and Democrats alike."

The kids were a bit surprised. "Are you calling them Nazis?" one asked. Of course not, I replied, but politicians today are using new communications tools to spread their version of the truth, much of it misleading.

A smart piece by Nancy Benac of the Associated Press describes how the Obama White House "image machine" works--"serving up a stream of words, images, and videos that invariably cast the president as commanding, compassionate, and on the ball. In this world, Obama's family is always photogenic, first dog Bo is always well-behaved, and the vegetables in the South Lawn kitchen garden always seem succulent."

Virtually every president has sought to control their images, often using new technology to keep traditional media at bay and to communicate directly with voters. Abraham Lincoln was, in the words of one biographer, "our first media politician" who "continually manipulated" newspaper editors. Franklin Roosevelt used the radio and John F. Kennedy the television to disseminate their messages unfiltered by the White House press corps. Ronald Reagan ran a tightly scripted White House. Bill Clinton bypassed experienced, probing Washington reporters in favor of talk radio and local media.

Obama benefits from the fact that 21st-century publishing is democratized via the Internet. Anybody, even the president, can cheaply create and distribute content without the filter of independent journalists. "Presidents need the [mainstream media] less than they once did," New College of Florida political science professor Richard Skinner said Monday night in reply to my tweet on Benac's story.

If propaganda from Washington is not new, only different, why should you care?

1. You don't trust authority. Polls show that Americans hold little regard for the veracity of political institutions and leaders. While the public has also lost faith in the media (justifiably so), independent journalists are the only check against misinformation, distortion, and lies from government.

2. Propaganda sows distrust. You already don't trust government. Does your cynicism increase or decrease as more information comes to you with an obvious slant? It's bad enough that some news organizations have abandoned even the pretense of ruthless nonpartisanship. What if, soon, the bulk of news you get comes directly from government and political leaders? It could happen.

3. Leaders know better. Ask a politician if a robust, independent media industry is important to democracy and they'll say yes. "I know sometimes you like to give me a hard time," Obama told journalists assembled at last year's White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. "But I never forget that our country depends on you." Then why does he work so hard, and effectively, to minimize the press corps' role?

Having witnessed Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush field off-the-cuff questions almost daily, I regret the steep decline of impromptu Q&A sessions under Obama. While I understand why Obama doesn't want reporters to knock him "off message," as happened so often to past presidents, the informal Q&A forced presidents to think on their feet and be accountable in a way that formal news conferences and interviews with handpicked journalists do not.