Presidential Communications in the New Media Landscape

For my research project, I will be studying the evolution of presidential communications, focusing particularly on how the Obama White House has adapted organizationally and managerially to the challenges of communicating its message in the new media landscape.

President Obama’s historic 2008 election changed presidential politics in so many ways. The most interesting in my opinion, though, is the extent to which then-candidate Obama’s campaign implemented technology and organizing tools to build a massive grassroots following.

President Obama’s campaign was largely candidate-centered, driven by a movement and a message rather than a political party. Obama’s campaign team assembled an email list that allowed them to reach 13 million voters directly, and employed new communications channels that allowed them to inspire a swath of previously neglected voters to go to the polls.

But evidence suggests that the candidate who communicated so effectively and eloquently to a diverse American public has struggled to channel his campaign movement into effective governance. In a study analyzing the media coverage of the passage of the Affordable Care Act, Pew Research Center reports that Republican “opponents of the reform won the so-called messaging war’.”

How did this happen? Media audiences are fractured. The 24-hour news cycle requires that networks fill air time with constant content and talking heads. Technology has largely transformed the “the optics of the presidency,” Jonathan Alter writes in The Promise.

Much of the reporting and popular discussion on this topic has centered on the increasing pervasiveness and popularity of social networking sites in both political campaigns and society at large, but I intend to analyze how the White House staff has expanded to meet these unprecedented communications challenges. Specifically, I want to study how the president can develop a communications structure to channel campaign enthusiasm into effective governance.

My inspiration for this research project began my freshman year here at Gettysburg College, when I took Dr. Shirley Anne Warshaw’s popular course on the presidency. The Affordable Care Act was being heavily debated in the public discourse at the time, and since then, I have been fascinated by the roll press secretaries play in the White House communications operation. Three years ago I watched those press conferences discussing health care assuming press secretaries and their assistants were the only White House staffers managing the president’s message.

After reading Martha Kumar’s watershed analysis of the White House communications structure and operation in Managing the President’s Message, I realized just how naive I was in my initial assumptions. The White House communications operation is growing — rapidly. I hope to build on Martha Kumar’s analysis of the Clinton and Bush administrations and apply her research methods to my study of the Obama White House.

This will be a difficult analysis if I do not narrow my scope, but my hope is that focusing on the changes in the White House communications staff will provide a solid framework for my analysis. I am excited to get started.

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One Response to Presidential Communications in the New Media Landscape

  1. samfarish says:

    Starting out, I wanted to write about something relating the media and the President. Since the infamous JFK/Nixon debate, media has become more and more important. It’s such an interesting concept, because the media seems like it should be irrelevant. I think most people would be reluctant to admit that it plays a role in who they cast their vote for, but it truly does. How the candidates use the media and what the media says about the candidate. I look forward to hearing more about your paper!

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