Fineman: The End of Obama's Media Honeymoon

Barack Obama does not like to be surprised—or worse, to be seen being surprised. Nor does he like his motives questioned. His reaction to any of this, I know from personal experience, is a wide grin (akin to the baring of teeth) and a dismissive rhetorical question, as in "What do YOU think?" It happens in the blink of an eye; if you don't pay attention, you miss the antagonism.

Anyone who expects our smooth-operator president to lose his cool in front of the press will be waiting a long time, perhaps forever. But I do sense that, after the comparatively sunny days of his first five months in office, the pattern is changing in the meteorological map of the national media—and in the president's own comfort with his journalistic surroundings. Bottom line: things are getting a little testy and are about to get more so.

The most interesting reason for the darkening skies, from what I've seen, is not that the president and his aides have been stonewalling or lying about anything. They don't blab, that's for sure, but they are truthful, at least in comparison with some predecessors. No, the problem is that they are too cute by half. They assume they can manipulate, manage and guide the media flawlessly. They think they can ride the wave all the way every time. And why shouldn't they? Obama's presidential campaign, after all, was perhaps the shrewdest, most disciplined message machine ever assembled in modern electoral politics. And the coverage, overall, was often close to hagiographic.

The presidency is a harder course, and the risk is that, by over-managing, the president and his aides will damage their own credibility with the press and, more important, with the public. Voters have come to accept (and even reward) candidates who stay on message. But those same voters also know that the truth in a presidential administration is messier—they want to know what it is, and they want it unvarnished.

Obama has had such warm relations with most of the national media (he even jokes about it) that he is tempted to use them in ways that can sound like propaganda. A case in point: the recently televised town hall about health care. Even supporters of the president's reform effort found the hour soporific and pretty one sided—and conservatives and Republicans were not unjustifiably dismissive. If you play all your games on your home court, your record is suspect.

Another case: the cheesy way in which the White House used a presidential press conference to choreograph a question from Iran that had been solicited by a Huffington Post editor who was invited specifically for the purpose of passing on the question. Pretty cool, and it emphasized the point that America stands for free speech while the mullahs are snuffing it in Iran. Except that Obama, his aides and the reporter semi-pretended that the move wasn't scripted, which insulted everyone's intelligence. Worse, the Obamaneuver treated the press corps as a prop in a global propaganda war.

Obama's sweeping promises of a new era of "transparency" in government have fallen short as well. He's invoked many of his predecessor's justifications for keeping surveillance operations secret—and even is refusing to make public the logs of White House visitors. Reporters, so far, are not impressed.

Things will inevitably turn confrontational, and when that happens, Obama is not going to like it. He is a tough customer, and smarter and shrewder than most, but he doesn't like antagonistic questions any more than any other human being. And he really isn't used to a steady stream of them.

Why will things change? Well, he has changed or abandoned numerous campaign positions, many documented by the same reporters now covering him in the White House. The list is long on health care alone. He was against a mandate for coverage, now he seems to be for one; he was against the taxation of health-care benefits, now he may tolerate that very thing. More important, his agenda on the Hill is so vast and so ambitious—and worries about the deficit and higher taxes have grown so deep—that questions are multiplying exponentially.

There is a physics in media: every action eventually produces an equal and opposite reaction. Or, as the old saying goes, they're either at your feet or at your throat. Obama has enjoyed a glorious ride, but the press has gotten about as much mileage as it can by writing the story of his rise and early triumph. Eventually, the only way to generate copy and ratings will be to write the story of his difficulties—the descent that follows the rise. Expect to see Obama smiling a lot.