Obama OK, but no JFK in TV press performance

I am surprised by how little discussion there has been about President-elect Barack Obama's first news conference Friday in TV terms. After all, the major networks and cable channels did interrupt all programming to carry it, even though there was little news.

So, as the critic who has been arguing for months that Obama is the last great TV candidate and possibly the best since the archetype, John F. Kennedy, I guess I would be remiss if I didn't weigh in with some analysis of the news conference as a TV production. And, for now at least, I have decided to keep reviewing them for the foreseeable future.


After all, Obama and his handlers used TV brilliantly to get elected, so why wouldn't they continue to use the medium to try and effectively govern? And wouldn't it be just as important -- or more -- to understand how they are using TV to get their messages across and to shape citizens' perceptions of the administration and the country at this crucial time in our history?

Overall, for Friday's performance: B-

Start with the use of set design and symbolism.

You can't always control what the network cameras will show, but you can limit what it is possible for them to see. If you can help it, you never let a president walk on to a stage that hasn't been set or dressed. This one was.

Directly behind Obama as he stood at the podium were three huge American flags. And behind them, a rich, blue velvet drape. It wasn't just blue, it was the electric TV blue that the Democrats have wisely appropriated for the party. The drape was a near perfect match in color for the sign on the front of the podium that said "office of the president elect."

And then, there was the long, gray line of men and women standing onstage as Obama entered. I joke about the gray -- some of the people standing there were not that old. But it was reassuring in this troubled economic time to see so much intelligence and experience standing behind the president elect. And so many of them were familiar: Paul Volcker, Robert Reich and Lawrence Summers.

The messages Obama's team wanted to send at the end of this historic week were those of stability, reassurance, command and presidential power -- and every prop and person on the stage spoke to that.

On one side of Obama stood Joe Biden, the vice president-elect, and on the other in the straight-ahead camera shot was Volcker, the former Federal Reserve Chairman -- one older man who is an expert in foreign policy, the other in the economy, the nation's two biggest concerns.

Overall, give the TV production an A- in symbolism, imagery and staging.

But as important as images and pictures are, TV also involves words. And in this regard, Obama did not do very well.

It wasn't just the gaffe about the "seances" of former first lady Nancy Reagan, though, that was pretty bad. Imagine if George W. Bush had something along those lines about a Kennedy widow?

But Obama seemed tight at the microphone throughout the session. I have no doubt he was trying for the badinage JFK managed to pull off with reporters in his TV news conferences, but it was too much probably to hope for in his first encounter. And so, he wound up striking discordant notes and seeming uneven in tone.

Obama will surely get better, and probably surpass Kennedy in using TV to reassure, inspire and guide the country through these frightening and deeply troubled times. But there is no way to give him better than an C- for the verbal part of Friday's production.

I feel certain, though, that there are many and better news conferences ahead.


(Above: AFP/Getty Images photo by Stan Honda)