White House rollout of Kagan Supreme Court announcement a study in modern media manipulation

Jon Ward Contributor
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White House press secretary Robert Gibbs looked genuinely irritated Monday, telling reporters in his office that President Obama did not intend for news of Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court to be leaked to the press Sunday evening.

“These are the president’s picks and the president ought to have the opportunity to announce them when he wants to,” Gibbs said.

If the White House indeed wanted to keep the news a secret until Monday morning, it must have been one of the few disappointments on a day that saw a highly scripted and carefully planned rollout of the administration’s pick for the nation’s highest court.

Of course, the Kagan leaks did not look uncoordinated. Politico’s Mike Allen reported Friday morning that Kagan would likely be the nominee, and that the news would first come out Sunday evening. That is exactly what happened.

And while the White House claimed to have “rollout scenarios for multiple candidates,” the New York Times had a 4,667-word profile of Kagan ready on its website before 6:00 a.m. that day.

The nomination was in many respects a study in how the Obama White House has learned to use the modern media environment to its advantage and created a new playbook in the world of digital communications. A handful of storylines counter to White House talking points gained ground Monday: Rumors about Kagan’s sexuality became a focus and were fueled in part by the administration’s defensiveness, some critics questioned White House claims that she is in touch with every day working people and her decision to ban military recruiters from Harvard’s campus when she was dean of its law school received a lot of attention. But overall, Obama’s communications team could probably not have asked for a more receptive environment into which the president introduced his pick.

By the time Obama appeared with Kagan at 10 a.m. Monday in the White House East Room, there was a general resignation in Washington that she was a virtual lock for confirmation, created in large part by the convention wisdom, pushed hard by the administration, that Kagan is a smart and moderate jurist, even if liberal.

The White House also went out of its way Monday to neutralize any damage it might incur at the televised daily briefing, holding off-camera question and answer sessions separately with TV reporters and print reporters less than an hour after the announcement.

In the days leading up to the announcement, the White House did its best to gauge reactions from different constituencies: Republicans in the Senate, liberal activists, the press. Obama staff carefully placed bits and pieces of information in the hands of select reporters to signal who the president was going to choose and to test whether or not potential lines of attack would be picked up by conservatives or not.

By floating Kagan’s name days in advance the White House was able to observe the potency of criticisms of Kagan from the left, while reaping the political benefits of having her appear more moderate because of the attacks.

Gibbs, of course, denied that politics played any role whatsoever in the decision and the execution of the announcement.

“The president was focused on picking the very best person to be the Supreme Court nominee,” he said.

Pressed to name a number indicating what percentage of the president’s choice was politically motivated, Gibbs doubled down.

“There is ample evidence in virtually every day in the last 15 months that the president makes decisions based on what he thinks is right, not what might be in a poll or what might not be popular,” he said. “I think that goes from the very first day all the way through today.”

In addition to strategically leaking key information ahead of time to the press, the White House “pre-butted” some of the various criticisms it seemed clear Kagan would face: that she lacks judicial experience, that she is a far-left liberal, that she has ties to Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs.

However, on some issues of vulnerability — she may not be liberal enough, her decision to ban military recruiters from Harvard’s campus — the administration saved its strongest salvos for Monday.

Numerous White House officials went deep into the details of Kagan’s decision at Harvard to ban military recruiters, which may be the biggest political problem for her, citing  technical details that provide some context, which were laid out in a New York Times piece last Thursday.

And they recited a litany of things to argue against the charge that Kagan is “anti-military.”

Before Kagan appeared with Obama for the announcement, a report by NPR’s Nina Totenberg was being circulated by many on the left as evidence that Kagan’s view of executive power is not as robust as some fear.

The White House flooded the news cycle Monday with other events at the White House to ensure that the Kagan nomination was not an isolated target for the media.

Gibbs brought the top U.S. general in Afghanistan and the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan to the daily briefing to talk about the visit to Washington this week by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Relations with Karzai have been tense in recent months and thus Karzai’s visit is an important event. But his meeting with Obama is Wednesday, leaving the White House plenty of time for briefings on the topic.

By split-screening its message Monday, however, the White House reduced the chances for a media frenzy on negative aspects of either story. The messy U.S.-Afghan relationship, and the uncertain future of an ongoing war, were almost completely overshadowed by the Kagan story. At the same time, Gibbs went for 45 minutes in his daily briefing before he faced any questions on the Supreme Court nomination, and ended up fielding only a few reporter questions about Kagan on camera.

Gibbs sidestepped any potential charges of not taking sufficient questioning on the matter with the off-camera briefings held for print and TV reporters.

Gibbs and White House legal adviser Ron Klain briefed print reporters in Gibbs’s office while, separately, senior adviser David Axelrod and Obama’s chief counsel, Bob Bauer, spoke with TV reporters.

By the end of the day, the White House and the Democratic National Committee were circulating extensive roundups of favorable comments made by legal experts and pundits from Washington and around the country. A video promoting Kagan, complete with footage of the nominee and president at the announcement, had been placed on YouTube.

It was a good start, but Republicans in Congress were withholding their strongest criticisms as well Monday, raising questions about whether they plan to up the pressure on Kagan in the coming days and weeks.

“The White House did a good job of rolling out Kagan’s nomination because it was in their control,” said Republican political consultant Ron Bonjean. “Now that the nomination is in the hands of the Senate, keeping on top of the message game will be much more challenging if unknown crises loom around the corner.”