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Obama's Cautious Media Strategy Contributes To Rusty Debate Performance

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NEW YORK -- Shortly after Wednesday night's presidential debate, conservative media figures began claiming that President Barack Obama's listless performance, in the face of questions from Republican challenger Mitt Romney, proves that the press hasn't held him accountable over the past four years.

On Fox News, Sarah Palin described Obama as being "coddled by the media," with host Sean Hannity saying "the media has basically sold out the American people and have not done their job." The following morning, Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin wrote that Obama "looked lost without the protective blanket of compliant media and over-eager left-wing bloggers" and Rush Limbaugh triumphantly kicked off his radio show by claiming the media has "shielded" and "protected" the president since he's been in office.

Obama's sub-par performance fit in nicely with conservative media's long-running caricature of the press at large, which typically neglects to mention the scrutiny the administration's received on signature initiatives like the stimulus and health care reform. It also ignores studies like an Oct. 2011 Pew reportthat found Obama got more negative coverage than the Republicans vying for his job.

While it may seem like national political reporters and TV anchors haven't challenged Obama much recently, it's not because they're shielding him from tough questions. They've rarely had the opportunity to ask any.

Obama hasn’t appeared on any of the Sunday public affairs shows since Sept. 2009, thus bypassing a traditional stop in which presidential candidates address the type of Beltway issues that are likely to come up at the debates. Obama hasn’t done interviews with top newspapers like the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post since 2009, according to records kept by CBS News' Mark Knoller. The president's last New York Times sit-down was in Sept. 2010.

On the cable news front, Obama hasn't done interviews with Fox News or MSNBC -- as Chris Matthews will attest -- this year, while only sitting down with CNN once for a pre-Democratic convention documentary.

When the president does broadcast TV interviews, they're often for specific reasons. The White House hand-picked Robin Roberts for Obama's May announcement that he supports gay marriage, but he hasn't appeared since on ABC News programs such as "Good Morning America," World News," "This Week" or "Nightline." Obama spoke with NBC's Brian Williams in April for a Situation Room interview pegged to the anniversary of the killing Osama bin Laden.

Obama skipping "Meet the Press" or "Face the Nation" this cycle clearly isn't the only reason for his poor showing on stage, and arguments can be made that prep sessions or taking part in over 20 debates, as he did during the 2008 Democratic primary, are much better ways to practice for debates. But the campaign's cautious media strategy hasn't allowed for Obama to face as many questions as Romney throughout this election year, which may have contributed to looking rusty when compared with his Republican challenger.

In August, The Huffington Post reported that the Obama campaign was focusing on doing local interviews, including call-ins to sports chat shows in swing states, rather than wide-ranging, national media appearances. Obama, who'd done five times more national interviews than local interviews during his first year in office, switched gears during his reelection campaign.

CNN analyst Paul Begala, who serves as media consultant for pro-Obama super Pac Priorities USA Action, said at the time that he agreed with the local strategy, but added that Obama should also make the Sunday show rounds. Begala said Obama "needs to hit against major league pitching." He said the Sunday shows would be good preparation for sparring with Romney, who not only has done more national interviews this year but also participated in 20 Republican debates last spring. The campaign didn't take that advice.

Obama has never been a fan of impromptu Q&A's with reporters, unlike, say, former president Bill Clinton, and is prone to giving long, at times meandering, answers during formal White House news conferences. The president prefers the interview format and has done more than any of his four most recent predecessors at this point in their tenures.

But lately, Obama hasn't been sitting down with incisive TV interviewers, like ABC News' Jake Tapper, or combative hosts like Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, with whom Obama tangled before the 2011 Super Bowl in an appearance that forced the president to deal with the type of interruptions he'd later encounter on the debate stage.

Instead, he's done interviews with People and Entertainment Tonight. And in an interview that aired Sept. 11, Obama discussed Flo Rida and football with Miami’s “Pimp with the Limp” DJ Laz.

Of course, not every voter obsessively reads Politico or is glued to Twitter all day like the nation's political reporters, and it would be myopic to only do Beltway-focused media appearances. Non-traditional outlets are a smart way to reach a lot of voters who aren't necessarily political junkies, while allowing the ESPN-loving president to show his less wonky side when talking sports or music.

But this strategy has led to criticism, such as last week when Obama appeared on "The View" while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met nearby with world leaders attending the United Nations General Assembly.

The Obama campaign did not respond to a request for comment Thursday regarding whether it will change up its media strategy.

Asked Thursday about his earlier suggestion that Obama needed more practice against "major league pitching," Begala told The Huffington Post that while it may be beneficial for Obama to sit down with a variety of hosts, whether O'Reilly or his CNN colleagues Candy Crowley and Wolf Blitzer, there isn't much time left in the race and debate prep is now key.

However, Begala reached for another baseball metaphor in speaking about debates going forward. "First night of the World Series and our ace got hit," Begala said. "We'll make adjustments. The fact is that Obama's in good shape."

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