The first American president to appear on television was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Speaking at the opening of the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, he declared the event “open to all mankind.” But for all Roosevelt’s TV-friendly oratory, it wasn’t until 1960 with the election of John F. Kennedy, historians argue, that television fully matured. Used with expert precision, Kennedy became our first “TV president.”
The same technological evolution can be seen with former president Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Clinton may have been the first president to send an email, but it is Barack Obama, with his social media-savvy Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts, that have allowed him to take top honors as the nation’s first “multimedia president.”
Too Cool for School? Not This Prez
It’s that media/tech-savvy distinction that allows Obama to connect with young voters –- better than even the saxophone-playing-Clinton once did. Obama’s presidential “cool” allows him license to use Kennedy’s favorite communications medium in new ways too. On April 24, Obama was the guest-in-chief on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" -- where he joined the host in a bit called “Slow-Jam the News,” where current events are put to a relaxed R&B beat.
But humor was only part of Obama’s continuing call to cool. His presence was a superb lesson in public relations.
Obama took the opportunity to connect with Fallon’s college-aged and 20-something viewers to address an issue that is central to their futures -– student loans and mounting debt. The five-minute opener (with nearly 5 million YouTube views when I wrote this post) featured a smiling and hand-waving president who morphed into mocking seriousness. With a bluesy backbeat, the chief jammer began:
“On July 1st of this year the interest rates on Stafford student loans -- the same loans that many of you use to help pay for college -- are set to double,” he said. …“What we said [to congress] is simple. Now is not the time to make school more expensive for our young people.”
The camera returned to a smile-suppressing Fallon, where he delivered the follow-up line in a raspy, deep voice. “Ooooh yeah. You should listen to the president."
Public Relations 101: Stay On Message
With performances like that, who needs costly political ads or even stump speeches? Obama chose the student loan topic deliberately. Hours before the live taping, Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney began backpedaling when it came to his opinions on the “student loan crisis,” first tacitly endorsing the July 1 deadline and then breaking with Republican colleagues to support the president’s call to keep student loan interest rates in check.
Perhaps the Romney campaign would like to blame it on the leap year.
On February 29, at a campaign stop in Ohio, Romney answered a question from a law student that illuminated his position regarding student loans and the need for market forces -- not public handouts -- to determine the fair cost of financial aid.
“The right course for America is for businesses and universities and colleges to compete, and for us to make sure that we provide loans to the extent we possibly can at an interest rate that doesn’t have the taxpayers having to subsidize people who want to go to school,” he said.
That’s an opinion that speaks to the Republican base. But throw in his campaign advisor Eric Fehrnstrom’s Etch a Sketch comment about being able to rewrite political narratives once the general election gets underway and you’re left with a politician edging toward a John Kerry-style flip-flopper.
We still have a long horse race ahead in the game of presidential politics. But Obama’s smooth, humorous and televised quasi-Romney dig will continue to serve him well. Not only does the president rely on a host of media outlets to disseminate his message, he’s skilled at shifting his tone throughout events.
Obama understands that shifting tone is different than shifting message. We’ll have to wait and see if Romney has been properly schooled and if Obama can remember his own lessons come fall.
But for now, I’ll still agree with the Roots rapper Black Thought, who at the end of President Obama’s slow jam session called him the “POTUS (President of the United States) with the mostest.”