President revs up PR in debt-ceiling debate

As House Republicans slog toward a Thursday vote on raising the debt ceiling, President Obama and his staff have hit the airwaves in a massive, all-hands-on-deck public-relations effort to turn the tide of political opinion in their favor.

All told, the president has addressed the press on five different occasions since July 11. 

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He has also dispatched his top aides — from senior advisers Valerie Jarrett and David Plouffe to White House press secretary Jay Carney and economic adviser Gene Sperling — to appear on TV and make his case for a more balanced approach to deficit cutting.

White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley is even making the rounds, appearing on a couple of the Sunday shows last week.

Obama’s most recent appeal, a direct address to the American people from the East Room at prime time, was panned by Republicans for containing no specific plans, but the president’s staff sees the effort as helping to change the narrative in the president’s favor. 

White House spokeswoman Jamie Smith explained that Obama has sought to engage the public directly.

“The White House is engaged in a robust and ongoing effort to communicate with the American people about the risk of default and the need for Congress to break the stalemate through compromise,” Smith said. 

Democrats, by and large, have applauded the president’s increased visibility in the wake of a possible compromise on a grand bargain between Obama and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) that evaporated at the end of last week. 

The president’s urging that Americans make their voices heard during the prime-time address worked in the short term, with callers crashing congressional switchboards and servers.

One Democratic strategist said Obama, who at times during the debate has been accused of both overexposure and reclusiveness, is doing “absolutely the right thing” by consistently putting himself before the media’s cameras. 

“In a crisis situation — and we are rapidly approaching one — people look to the president for explanations and answers,” said Martha Joynt Kumar, a professor at Towson University and a leading expert on presidential communication. 

“President Obama cannot afford to cede his stage to his Republican opponents.”

Republicans have acknowledged Obama’s bully pulpit gives him an advantage, but have tried to counter with their own appearances, including Boehner’s response Monday night to Obama’s address. 

Kumas said Obama owns an advantage over his opponents and those working for him.

“He can use surrogates from his Cabinet and White House staff to explain the details of what the White House positions are and what they have been doing to reach a just solution,” Kumar said. “But people expect their president to bring crises to a reasonable conclusion. He is the only nationally elected official in our system and thus the only one who can speak for the nation as a whole. The public will want to continue hearing from him.”