Obama not one to shy away from the spotlight

Town hall meetings and appearances on talk shows allow the president to promote his agenda directly to voters.

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WASHINGTON // It is a busy week on the global stage for Barack Obama, who yesterday led a gathering of world leaders at the United Nations in New York and tomorrow will host the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh. But even with his jam-packed schedule of high-level meetings, not to mention yesterday's trilateral summit on Middle East peace, the US president found time for a sit down of another sort, albeit one less likely to show up in the history books: an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman.

Equipped with an easy smile and his usual deadpan humour, Mr Obama showed little of the stresses that come with his office. He touched on some key issues, including healthcare reform and the war in Afghanistan, but it was a largely lighthearted affair for the president, who at one point poked fun at the ongoing debate over whether many of his critics are racist. "I think it's important to realise that I was actually black before the election," Mr Obama said with a straight face as the audience and Letterman broke into laughter.

It was the first time a sitting president has appeared on the popular programme and the most recent in a wave of small-screen appearances by Mr Obama who, experts say, has been in the public eye more than any of his predecessors. Robert Thompson, the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, said Mr Obama is set even to outshine Ronald Reagan, the former president and Hollywood actor who relished his on-camera appearances.

"If he keeps up this pace, there's no question he becomes the most televised president," Mr Thompson said. Since taking office, US audiences have seen their commander-in-chief in a variety of televised settings, whether it was between innings at Major League Baseball's All Star Game or visiting a burger joint with Brian Williams, the anchor of NBC's Nightly News. Mr Obama has held four prime time press conferences and his near daily town hall meetings are a staple of cable talk shows. On Sunday it did not matter what channel Americans turned to: Mr Obama was on five separate networks as part of an unprecedented media blitz to sell his healthcare reform plan.

Democratic strategists say the frequent appearances effectively drown out the opposition. "I think the old rules don't apply in this new age of instant and ubiquitous communication," said Tad Devine, a longtime political operative and chief political consultant to Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. "He is the strongest messenger that [Democrats] have and the best advocate for the change he is seeking."

But appearing frequently in the spotlight also risks overexposure, according to Tim Brooks, a television historian and former executive vice president of research for Lifetime Networks. It can make the president "seem like something that is ordinarily there, something that we can ignore", he said. Some Republicans have used Mr Obama's stream of publicity to open up new lines of attack. George Will, a prominent conservative writer who last week counted 263 public events involving the president since January, wrote in Newsweek that the media blitz is providing "CPR for the Republican Party".

"His incessant talking cannot combat what it has caused: an increasing number of Americans do not believe that he believes what he says," Mr Will wrote. "He's been on everything but the Food Channel," quipped Lindsey Graham a South Carolina senator, who appeared on NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday shortly after Mr Obama. Spending so much time in the public view has also given Mr Obama more chances to make mistakes.

In a March appearance on NBC's The Tonight Show hosted by Jay Leno - the first time a White House occupant graced that programme - Mr Obama stumbled by comparing a bowling outing to being "like Special Olympics". The offensive comments led to a swift presidential apology. Likewise, in one of his nationally televised press conferences, Mr Obama inserted himself into a racial controversy by saying that police "acted stupidly" when they arrested a prominent black scholar.

Just last week, as he prepared for an interview on CNBC, Mr Obama was recorded criticising the rap star Kanye West for an incident in which West grabbed a microphone from another star at the MTV Music Awards. The comments became an internet sensation, underscoring the fact that unwanted attention also comes with being the country's celebrity-in-chief. For now the administration calculates that the rewards outweigh the risks.

Mr Obama's speech to Congress earlier this month drew 32 million viewers according to The Nielsen Company, which tracks television viewership. The performance led to a bump in Mr Obama's approval ratings, a CBS News poll showed. The Late Show, meanwhile, averages 3.6m nightly viewers, giving Mr Obama access to a block of mainstream Americans whose support could prove crucial as he attempts to sell his agenda amid a crush of Republican opposition.

"There's an awful lot of misinformation out there that gets floated around and that's what we have to fight through," Mr Obama told Letterman, sitting in a chair normally reserved for actors and musicians. "That's why I end up having to be on the Dave Letterman show." sstanek@thenational.aea