We are now living through the first reality-show presidency.
The trends began in the early 1990s, with 24-hour cable news and reality programming, and intensified in the past few years, with the rise of celebrity culture and micro-broadcasting technology.
This is the first administration, however, to fuse iterative, real-time lifestyle coverage with the star power of a true celebrity politician. The White House is deftly serving the huge public and media interest in President Barack Obama, not only as a leader and celebrity but also as a character in a fascinating story far beyond politics.
So far, it is working.
Historically, the most favorably viewed figure in any administration is the first lady, regardless of her husband's popularity. That is largely because first ladies avoid the political fray and are ritualistically presented as a warm, human presence in the White House. Take Laura Bush. She left the White House with a 67 percent favorable rating, according to a January CNN poll, more than double the ratings of her husband and his top officials.
So far, Obama is garnering the kind of coverage more traditionally associated with first ladies, partly because he is covered not only as a president immersed in policy but also as the star of an exciting reality show.
Sometimes the press takes the lead on the set.
This week, for example, while many wonks debated Obama's health care objectives, the media had other goals in mind. "It's the Weekend, So Obama Becomes a Soccer Dad," blared an AP headline, detailing Obama's cameo as soccer fan at his daughter's games. "At one point, after [his daughter's] team scored, the president shouted excitedly, 'Go ... go ... go ... goal,'" the article recounted. Television news programs also picked up the scene, playing loops of Obama, clad in a White Sox jacket, cheering on the sidelines.
Before soccer weekends, the press salivated over plot twists like the new vegetable garden at 1600 Pennsylvania and the arrival of Bo, the first family's puppy. Those lifestyle stories drew tons of attention. Bo netted over 3,200 hits on Google News in a single week, besting coverage for several members of Obama's Cabinet (including Tom Vilsack, Hilda Solis, Gary Locke and Ray LaHood). The Washington Post even sought an exclusive scoop on the puppy, though the paparazzi site TMZ.com got there first.
And the first family's vegetable garden was one of the biggest Obama-related stories of the week in March, according to Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism, which measures topics in the national "newshole."
Then, from the other direction, White House aides provide a steady stream of apolitical scenes from Obama's life to the press and the public.
As the Los Angeles Times reported last month, both Obama staffers and celebrity news executives agree that celebrity-driven media coverage has reached a "new level" at the White House. To generate "personality-driven coverage," the article explained, White House press aides now give coveted access to celebrity outlets like E! and Us Weekly. (Imagine the photo spread: "They balance a budget, just like us!")
Beyond the media filter, the White House website has more reality-style scenes than ever before. Sports fans can find Obama's handwritten NCAA bracket picks, along with over 400 pictures of the president's daily routine on the official Flickr page, including shots of the President and Bo (at right). And the White House recently shifted those snapshots' copyright status to "public domain," to its credit, so anyone can download and use them.
This show would not be effective, of course, without a good subject. Obama won the presidency by running the first integrated three-screen campaign -- reaching people directly via Internet, cell phones and TV -- with an authentic, complex style that resonated for voters sick of dark, deceitful and divisive politics.
Michael Hirschorn, the pioneering reality television producer and Atlantic commentator, notes that candidate Obama won over people, especially young voters, by using the media to communicate with a contemporary "linguistic approach" that was "post-political in a traditional way." Hirschorn told me that Obama has continued to apply that style effectively in office, using the shifting media environment to share his "humanness."
It clearly isn't hurting.
Obama's approval ratings hold strong at about 65 percent, despite the bad economy and a series of tough issues in the spotlight, from bailouts to torture to health care. As a recent Gallup analysis concluded, Obama is not only "maintaining his 'honeymoon' approval ratings, but he seems to be improving on them."
The numbers would not be possible, obviously, unless people already backed Obama's leadership and agenda. For Americans who don't follow every policy address, however, the scenes of puppies and sports and gardening cast Obama in a positive quotidian light. After all, depressing news makes people want to change the channel. And that may be one more reason the media are working with the White House to change the news.