One hundred days is scarcely enough time to draw any firm conclusions about a new president’s capabilities. Even so, Barack Obama has garnered considerable respect for his media skills.
Pundits have dubbed him the “new media president;” while some of the most cynical among them believe his underlying strategy is to end-run traditional Washington gatekeepers by communicating more directly with constituents sympathetic to his agenda. But his fans and critics alike may be missing the bigger picture.
It’s true Obama has readily embraced most things digital. Throughout much of his campaign, his unique online audience bested those of his opponents — Hillary Clinton during the primaries and John McCain in the general election — sometimes 2-to-1.
His historic 26-word text message announcing Joe Biden as his running mate reached nearly three million U.S. mobile subscribers, and is considered the nation’s single-largest mobile marketing event ever. And since taking the oath of office, he has continued to use the Web to blog on vital issues and field questions from the public.
It should come as no surprise, however, that the president is taking full advantage of new technologies. Given the current state of the media, it would be more astonishing if he didn’t.
American consumers, like their counterparts around the world, have a seemingly insatiable appetite for information, from just about everywhere. Time spent with blogs and social networks, for example, is increasing globally at more than three times the rate of overall Internet growth, particularly among audiences 50 and older. Little wonder then that Obama is active on Facebook, MySpace, Flickr and Twitter.
Much has also been made about the president’s penchant for his BlackBerry. Yet with the typical U.S. mobile subscriber now sending and receiving more text-based data than voice calls, the ability to “thumb” a message is critical to reaching certain sectors of the population.
Still, it is with video, the emerging lingua franca of the 21st century, that Obama has probably been most prolific. Americans today watch more video than ever before, primarily on three screens – television, the Internet and cell phones. But despite the growth of online and mobile media, more than 99 percent of screen time is still in front of the TV set in the home. Acknowledging this fact, the president has made ample use of the medium. [See: “Video Viewing Up at WhiteHouse.gov”]
Last night, he held his third televised press conference, raising his monthly average above any other president since John F. Kennedy. Last month, he appeared on both The Tonight Show and 60 Minutes, helping to drive up their ratings to the highest levels in four and 10 years, respectively.
Consequently, President Obama has underscored two important facets of an ever-changing media landscape. First, as audiences continually fragment into smaller, self-defined groups, communicating with them will mean working across multiple platforms. Second, the process is not a zero sum game. At any given time, consumers tend to favor the best available screen, basing their decisions on factors such as convenience, availability of content and the quality of the viewing experience. Thus, new media alone will not be enough to successfully reach all constituencies.
Regardless, Obama will increasingly turn to new and emerging media technologies, as will the rest of the nation. Yet he is hardly the only president to do so. Some 67 years ago, Franklin Roosevelt became the “radio president,” as people began listening to radio to help carry them through the Great Depression. For his part, JFK initiated live, televised news conferences.
Back then as now, neither was the first to use his respective medium, though each was the first to truly master it. Like Obama today, each was also able, to some degree, to bypass mainstream filters and talk more directly to the public. Since the invention of movable type, that has historically been one of the key advantages of any new medium. What is more, it is not likely to change.