ABC’s Jake Tapper predicted this week that Barack Obama will be "the Britney Spears of 2009."
Considering that Obama was deemed by some to be the Britney Spears of 2008, it wasn’t much of a leap.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the cover of Us Weekly. While Obama’s political opponents were able to use his star power against him during the campaign – remember McCain’s “Celeb” ad? – the entertainment press’s fixation with the president-elect seems to be helping him as he prepares to takes office.
With a faction of compliant, adulatory and skin-deep chroniclers added to the media mix, Obama has found a consistent wing of support, one that can be used to upend the traditional political media apparatus, bringing new storylines to the fore and changing the game of how a president is covered.
“The number of eyeballs that read People magazine are enormous compared to political publications,” says veteran Democratic strategist Chris Lehane. “If you’re able to communicate through those outlets, you’re able to reach more people more quickly, without your message being ‘translated’ by the historic gatekeepers.”
The mainstream media caught a glimpse at the future last week in Hawaii, when resourceful paparazzi nabbed beefcake shots of the president-elect on the beach as well as shots of him at a memorial service for his late grandmother. All this, while the regular photo pool played by the rules and missed the shots.
"The idea that the Washington [photographers] agreed not to cover him and the paparazzi did so changes the rules of the Washington press corps," insists media critic Jeff Jarvis, the founding editor of Entertainment Weekly. “If one person breaks away from the pack, there is no pack.”
Or the pack simply follows. For a day or so, the photos of Obama’s muscular chest were just enough to divert attention away from more pressing crisis facing the nation and that nagging mess involving the Illinois governor.
The Huffington Post posted one of the swimsuit photos at the top of its homepage, accompanied by a simple, fawning headline: “O!” The New York Post similarly slavered: “FIT FOR OFFICE: Buff Bam is Hawaii Hunk." Other media outlets – including Politico – ran stories about the photos.
The fluffy tail was wagging the Washington dog.
“Does this trivialize the presidency?” asks Democratic strategist Peter Fenn, “At times, yes. Why is it important to know the back and forth of what kind of tuna fish sandwich the president-elect ordered? On the other hand, does this often humanize a leader? The answer to that, of course, is sure it does.”
Mark McKinnon, former communications strategist to John McCain and President George W. Bush, says Obama is enjoying the benefits of being “a celebritician or a polebrity.”
"So, he's getting different treatment and coverage, and his team understands that and is adjusting the dials accordingly,” McKinnon says. “I suspect this is a phenomenon that will continue and is going to drive the mainstream media and Republicans batty."
“In the past,” says Lehane, “you had to rely on the mainstream media to get your message out. You’d pay a price for that, too – you would need to be open to their questions and have exchanges with them – and it meant your message wasn’t going out unfiltered. Now, however, he has the potential – and there’s a big ‘P’ there – to circumvent how the process has traditionally worked.”
And for the time being, at least, the celebrity press is happy to play along.
Us Weekly editor Janice Min explains that the target audience of her magazine “correlates to the rabid supporters of Obama: young women, highly educated, high income, some of them with children. They see that the Obama family basically has a lot of attributes they admire and like and want to learn more about.”
Arianna Huffington notes that Obama hasn’t yet been subjected to the harsh side of tabloid life, a la Spears or Michael Jackson. Instead, the entertainment magazines have doted on him with the ritual fawning once afforded to movie stars of an earlier era.
"I think that it's not so much a celebrity angle, I think it’s more of a romantic aura around the Obamas, a kind of Camelot angle,” Huffington says.
Lehane says the attention lavished on may actually make him a better president. “You can make the argument that, by being considered an entertainment figure, Obama will at least have his finger on the pulse of what’s going on in our culture,” he says. “It’s a potentially helpful thing that will help him avoid being tremendously isolated.”
Even the man behind McCain’s anti-Obama “celebrity” spot, ad guru Fred Davis, acknowledges that the president-elect can now harness the power of his fame – and that he’s entitled to do so.
"He IS the new president of the United States," Davis opined. "He DID raise about a billion dollars, he DID revolutionize politics with African-Americans and the young, and he DID win by a healthy margin in the electoral vote. Guess I think he's earned some degree of celebrity."