The Art of Obama's Stagecraft

By Carol E. Lee
|  Tuesday, Jun 23, 2009  |  Updated 5:48 AM CDT
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The Obama Presidency in Photos

Every image of the president is the product of careful preparation.

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For months at the White House, when President Barack Obama took questions during photo ops with a foreign leader, it was only while sitting in the Oval Office.

But when it came time to send a message to the world after Obama’s meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, Obama’s aides decided to mix it up. The volatile situation seemed to call for a bolder image than the usual ones of Obama and his guest seated in chairs, with a fireplace in the background.

So on Tuesday, his aides organized Obama’s first joint news conference at the White House with a foreign leader, portraying the image of the two men standing literally shoulder-to-shoulder against the North Korean threat. There were rows of chairs for the press in the Rose Garden, translation devices for reporters, American and Korean flags on the stage, and two presidential podiums side by side.

It was all designed to elevate what the White House viewed as an important message at an important time.

Obama’s Oval Office preference is a break from recent predecessors, who usually used the more traditional two-podium setup from the start. George W. Bush liked to do the news conferences in the East Room, where the two leaders would walk down a red carpet lining Cross Hall. Then-President Bill Clinton also preferred the joint news conference, which he frequently held in an auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

Obama prefers the Oval Office, a senior White House official said, because it’s a more controlled setting in terms of keeping on message, an approach that plays to the image of Obama as a calm, measured leader.

The overarching goal of Obama’s White House stagecraft is to present an approachable yet authoritative president at an accessible White House. After all, most of the public images of Obama show him doing something at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

“What they see is somebody who is almost constantly on the job working,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, “and, obviously, I think that would be what we would always want to convey.”

“From a politics point of view, the White House is a perfect stage,” said former Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart. “You’ve got so many places there that remind you of different parts of the history.”

Administration officials are reluctant to discuss how much care goes into creating the president’s image at the White House, but as one communications official said, “There are lots of people here who are always thinking about how things look on TV, how they’ll translate.”

Some members of Obama’s staff study images of past presidents to see how they used the various White House rooms for different announcements — and even how they used the three different presidential podiums: the minimalist, the sleek and the formal.

As Obama’s aides have made the transition from the campaign, they’ve tried to put their own stamp on the White House.

They’ve hosted a virtual town hall and a poetry jam. And when they wanted to quickly elevate the status of the White House’s Sudan envoy, retired Gen. Scott Gration, in advance of his trip to the region, aides scheduled a last-minute photo op in the Roosevelt Room at the end of a meeting with Obama, Gration and others. The idea, aides said, was for those images of Gration with the president to broadcast abroad before Gration arrived.

So far, Obama has used a half-dozen rooms in the White House, a few rooms in the EEOB and four locations outside. White House staff is also looking into whether they can use some Secretary of War rooms in the EEOB for events or public announcements.

“There’s a limit to what we can do,” said senior adviser David Axelrod. “You can change venues, and in the summer we’ll move outside more. But frankly, one of the frustrations is when you’re in a campaign you can mix it up more. We’re basically on campus most of the time.”

The president also has his favorite spots.

“Anytime he can get outside,” Gibbs said. “He is glad that the weather gives him the opportunity to do stuff in the Rose Garden and around the grounds in order to break it up a little bit and to get a little fresh air.” 

 

When putting on an event for the president – even for the smallest of messages – the attention to detail extends to the minute.

“Nothing is not thought through,” said Greg Jenkins, the Bush White House’s director of advance, who said the Bush team even considered re-choreographing Marine One landings on the South Lawn.

“It gets to that level of thinking,” Jenkins said. “If you don’t go to those kinds of optical gyrations, you get a missed opportunity.”

Obama speaks from one of three types of podiums, depending on the weight of his remarks. There’s the “toast lectern” – a piece of wood on top of a metal pole – which is used for informal events, such as a statement from the South Driveway or Camp David.

“Blue Goose” is the traditional podium used for big speeches. It’s bulky, formal and doesn’t allow for much adjustment. When the Queen of England was reduced to a talking hat during a meeting with President George H.W. Bush, Her Majesty was speaking from “Blue Goose.”

George W. Bush’s team wanted a podium in between and created “The Falcon.” It has a sleeker, almost hourglass-like shape so more of the background is visible on television, and it’s adjustable.

“It really helped us to get through the queen of England’s visit,” quipped Scott Sforza, a former ABC producer who was on George W. Bush’s communications team.

President Bush’s staff went even further with the podiums and had a special one made for the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Sforza noted. It was designed so the president could be at the same level as someone in a wheelchair – and someone in a wheelchair could address the audience from a podium.

The rewiring of the White House over the past decade – and the emergence of fiber-optic technology – has had a huge impact on how recent presidents have been staged at the White House.

There are now about a dozen spaces on the grounds, indoor and outdoor, that the president can easily use. It used to be that the president’s staff would have to give the press hours and sometimes, depending on the room, a day’s notice before an announcement so television crews could run cables to the room or set up a satellite truck for the event.

In 2001 when George W. Bush announced that the United States had began military strikes in Afghanistan, his staff notified the press corps 15 minutes before the president went on the air live from the Indian Treaty Room in the EEOB.

The Bush team also made sure the president stood in front of a window, with the curtains were open and traffic on the street visible – to send the subtle message: Americans are still going about their daily lives.

Observers had nothing but high praise for the Obama administration’s eye for an image.

Jenkins even noted that the Obama team had fixed a setting they kind of flubbed when he was a candidate: At Obama’s rally in Germany during the campaign, staff had him against a pillar. So on a close-up shot, television viewers only saw Obama and part of a pillar, and it wasn’t clear what he was doing or where he was. Contrast that with Prague, where Obama’s staff pulled him away and even on a tight shot the background was clearly the city of Prague.

“These things don’t just happen,” Jenkins said.

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