WASHINGTON — In the days after an oil rig exploded last month in the Gulf of Mexico, the White House faced not only a looming environmental catastrophe but also a potential public relations disaster.
Aides feared a story line would take hold that President Barack Obama had responded too slowly to the spreading oil slick, damaging him politically much as the slow federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 discredited former President George W. Bush.
So while the federal government began reacting to the spreading oil, the White House message machine swung into action.
Within hours, it was cranking out a sustained barrage across the broad spectrum of modern communications — statements, reports, e-mails, tweets, photos and videos — all punctuated by a high-profile presidential visit to the Gulf followed by an incendiary speech at the White House and a video recap with exclusive behind-the-scenes views of Obama in “West Wing Week,” the White House’s new online program at www.whitehouse.gov.
Whether it’s Obama sitting with one reporter or a statement sent via Twitter, nothing happens by accident. The White House message machinery is a crucial element of the ever-expanding presidency.
Like his recent predecessors, Obama uses it to shape public opinion, drive the news media’s agenda and minimize political blowback.
The White House bureaucracy devoted to managing public imagery has been growing ever since President Richard Nixon created the first office devoted to broad communications strategy in 1969.
Obama’s version uses a blend of old and new techniques and technology in an effort to cut through a polarized partisan landscape and a dizzying array of modern mass media that abbreviate attention spans and fracture public attention.
Obama’s White House message machine employs more than 60 people directly, at a cost to taxpayers of at least $4.3 million a year.
Those totals, however, don’t include many more messengers who aren’t in the annual report on the White House office staff that’s submitted to Congress, including photographers and the communications staffs of Vice President Joe Biden and the National Security Council, all of whom are paid from different accounts.