The Most Openly and Transparently Thin-Skinned Administration in History

The Obama administration is obsessed with image management.


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Last night, as Beltway types and political bloggers wondered which White House staffer had screamed at reporter Bob Woodward and then sent him an email telling him he'd "regret" challenging Obama's sequestration narrative, I started tallying all the stories I'd heard about this administration overreacting to journalists and gadflies doing their jobs. 

My first thought was of Valerie Jarrett, who the New York Times desribed in a September profile as having "a tendency to take political criticism personally, 'even when it would be more useful not to.'" In that same profile, the Times reported that Jarrett had attacked ACLU President Anthony Romero for criticizing this administration's atrocious handling of the War on Terror. "Great harm has been done," Jarrett wrote to Romero. "There has been a material breach of trust." The Times also dug up this anecdote: After Cornel West called Obama the "black mascot of Wall Street," Jarrett, in a creepy echo of the Bush years, called him "un-American." 

But as economic advisor Gene Sperling demonstrated by haranguing Woodward, it's not just Jarrett. This administration is obsessed with image management. Sometimes the focus on the president being portrayed a certain way results in cuddly stuff–Barack Obama slow-jamming the news, Michelle Obama doing the Dougie–and sometimes it results in the White House acting petulant, bizarre, and gross.

– There was the time the White House banned a San Francisco Chronicle reporter from the White House press pool for filming an anti-Obama protest at a fundraiser. The White House initially claimed it banned the reporter for using a camera when she was only allowed to write what she saw. Then the White House claimed it hadn't banned her at all. All very confusing and weird. 

– There was the time the White House prohibited local journalists from covering a Silicon Valley fundraiser, presumably for fear that they'd be better equipped than D.C.-based pool reporters to recognize major players in the California tech scene. 

– There was the time the White House denied the Boston Herald a spot in the press pool because it ran a front-page op-ed from Mitt Romney. While the White House later claimed the Boston Globe got the pool spot because it submitted its request first, that explanation doesn't jibe with this email from a White House staffer: "I tend to consider the degree to which papers have demonstrated to covering the White House regularly and fairly in determining local pool reporters." Loyalty has its rewards! 

– There was the time an Orlando Sentinel reporter was made to sit in a closet at a fundraiser for Joe Biden. 

– There was the time Obama agreed to sit down with the editor and publisher of the Des Moines Register, so long as the paper agreed not to quote him or even reveal the topics of conversation.  

– My favorite overreaction to a media outlet, however, was one I first wrote about a few years ago after a small-town newspaper editor emailed me to say that the White House had asked her to remove a sentence that "reflected poorly" on First Lady Michelle Obama. The story was titled "Inside Marine One, President Obama's Helicopter," and according to the editor, it contained a single line that suggested Obama was somewhat aloof toward the chopper pilots. "Basically," the editor said in her email, "the reporter said that the First Lady didn't speak to the pilots but acknowledged them by making eye contact." Shortly after the story went online, the editor received a call from the White House asking her to remove the sentence (she did). Shortly after my story went online, the White House called me, too (I added a denial from the First Lady's office to my story, but didn't remove or retract anything we'd already published). 

Those are just a handful of media anecdotes (inside-the-Beltway reporters have many, many more stories about the Obama administration flipping its lid over reporters not following their instructions). But the Obama machine's obsession with image management isn't limited to haranguing and punishing journalists–just ask Desiree Rogers, Carlos Pascual, Hillary Clinton, or Stanley McChrystal

For more on Obama's promise to lead the "most open and transparent administration in history," see this piece