The Depth of a Salesman

Like FDR, prez is changing the rules for selling a message

By Roger Simon
|  Thursday, Sep 24, 2009  |  Updated 7:27 AM CDT
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The Depth of a Salesman

AP

President Obama is everywhere, but then, so was FDR.

It is Oct. 1, 1934. A group of rumpled reporters sit in a dimly lit bar, around a cigarette-scarred table a few blocks from the White House. They are drinking rye and wearing hats.

“Did you hear FDR last night?” one says. “How many fireside chats does that make for him so far?”

“Six!” says the second reporter. “Six fireside chats in the past 18 months! This guy is so overexposed it’s not even funny.”

“And if he’s not on the radio, he is on the newsreels,” says a third. “It’s too much. He is giving the nation Franklin fatigue.”

“It’s a classic first-term mistake,” says the fourth. “He is trying to do too much, spreading himself too thin. He just doesn’t understand the 8/5 news cycle.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the way presidents communicate with the public. He communicated more directly and more frequently. His predecessor, Herbert Hoover, required only one person to handle the mail. Roosevelt got 5,000 letters a day and would need a staff of 50 to handle them. The president was no longer a remote figure. He was a real person.

Though it is too early to tell for sure — can he really be only eight months into his presidency? — Barack Obama, too, may be a game-changing president when it comes to communicating with the public.

He is doing record-setting numbers of interviews and appearances. Turn on the TV, and he is there: a town hall, an address to Congress, the talk shows (five, count ’em, five on one Sunday), an interview with David Letterman, a speech at the United Nations.

If you follow politics, you no longer watch television. You watch Obamavision.

This has unsettled some who feel a president should hold something in reserve. George W. Bush certainly did. He was a “CEO-style” president. He delegated. Policies, decisions, invasions.

Obama sells. Wall to wall. He takes the stage, and he fills it. And he is on stage a lot.

Telling him to stop — suggesting, as some have, that a president can’t have this much exposure without fatiguing the public — is to miss the point.

He is suited for what he is selling. He is an activist selling an activist agenda and an activist government. And it takes an activist public schedule to do that.

It can be a roller coaster. It does not always go as planned. It can get interrupted by beer summits and guys shouting, “You lie!” But, at least so far, it always gets back on track, and the ride goes on.

The White House abhors a vacuum. Members of Obama’s team know that either they fill the air or somebody else will fill it for them. You drive the news, or somebody else will drive it at you.

Obama is probably the new normal. Future presidents will have to match him in terms of exposure and vigor and salesmanship. A president sells a program, a policy, a vision, an agenda, himself.

And the rule is: Always be selling. It is what a president does.

Roger Simon is POLITICO’s chief political columnist.

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