IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Obama campaign tightens control of image

The Obama campaign faces pitfalls as it moves into the general election and seeks to maintain control of the White House hopeful's image by tightly managing his public appearances.
Image: Barack Obama, Al Gore
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., right, speaks as former Vice President Al Gore claps at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit on Monday, Paul Sancya / AP file
/ Source: The New York Times

At a rally for Senator Barack Obama in Detroit on Monday, two Muslim women said they were prohibited from sitting behind the candidate because they were wearing head scarves and campaign volunteers did not want them to appear with him in news photographs or live television coverage.

The Obama campaign said it quickly called the women to apologize after learning of the incident. “It doesn’t reflect the orientation of the campaign,” said Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama. “I do not believe that mistake will be made again.”

But the incident, first reported Wednesday by, pointed to pitfalls the campaign faces as it moves into the general election and seeks to maintain control of Mr. Obama’s image by tightly managing his public appearances.

The Obama campaign is vigilantly fighting erroneous information that has spread on the Internet that he is Muslim — he is, in fact, Christian — and emphasizing his patriotism and American story, with flags in abundance. In Washington on Wednesday, he invited photographers to his meeting with new members of his national security team and retired military officers supporting his candidacy.

The campaign on Monday barred cameras from a large gathering of African-American civic leaders Mr. Obama attended. It recently refused to provide names of religious figures with whom Mr. Obama met in Chicago and directed some of them to avoid reporters by using a special exit. And on Wednesday, the campaign orchestrated Michelle Obama’s appearance on the friendly set of “The View” and a flattering spread in the pages of Us Weekly.

“One of the challenges that we are confronting very directly is dealing with the rumors and the e-mails, the inaccurate information about Senator Obama and Michelle Obama,” Ms. Dunn said, “and we’re going to deal with that very aggressively through a number of mediums.”

While the strategy has won compliments from political professionals of both parties, who say Mr. Obama’s campaign is exhibiting a high level of discipline, it has also created some early turbulence for a candidate who has run on promises of openness and cultivated a grass-roots following and a cottage industry of homemade campaign videos, memorabilia and street murals.

Mr. Obama’s campaign is making a transition typical of any newly minted presidential nominee preparing for a general election race. It mirrors the stagecraft once so successfully practiced by the campaigns of President Bush to the envy — and, sometimes, anger — of Democrats.

'Nature of the game changing'
“This guy is one of two people who can be president of the United States,” said Stuart Stevens, a Republican strategist for President Bush in his 2000 and 2004 campaigns. “He’s not going door-to door-in Iowa anymore, and I think people expect things to be different when you’re the nominee.”

“The same with John McCain — he’s not going to be able to spend as much time in living rooms,” Mr. Stevens said. “It’s just the nature of the game changing.”

But Mr. McCain’s campaign has been faulted for being too lax in protecting his image, facing specific criticism for his prime-time speech before a relatively small crowd and an odd green backdrop the night Mr. Obama claimed his party’s nomination. Yet while Mr. McCain’s aides have had their share of skirmishes with the press, they still enjoy a reputation for giving reporters traveling with him an unusual amount of access.

Strategists for Mr. Obama, the country’s first black nominee, have made it clear that they believe they need to take extra steps to control his image and protect against attack. But such efforts at times appear to conflict with the candidate’s stated desire to be unusually transparent and open, and they have already occasionally put him at loggerheads with news organizations pushing for greater access to him now that he is the presumptive nominee.

In spirited discussions with reporters barred from Monday’s meeting with African-American civic leaders, aides said that no cameras were allowed because the participants wanted the meeting to be private, even though it was announced on the daily hotel roster of events. Later, other aides said the lighting was not properly set up for television quality.

When Mr. Obama met with religious leaders last week, his campaign kept out photographers and reporters and refused to share a full list of participants.

Professor Douglas W. Kmiec, a conservative constitutional scholar at Pepperdine Law School, said Mr. Obama told him and others in attendance that he was keeping the meeting private so everyone could speak without fear of public judgment.

“He said, ‘I want the terms and conditions of the meeting to be such that anybody feels free to ask me anything in as challenging a way as they’d wish to,’ ” Mr. Kmiec said, adding that guests who wanted to avoid reporters were directed to a special exit.

Mr. Obama’s aides say his campaign has stayed true to his promise of transparency. They point to his decision to open fund-raisers to reporters, the first candidate this year to do so. But Mr. Obama is taking a more strategic approach to granting interviews. This week, he has focused on talking about the economy with reporters from The Wall Street Journal and Fortune.

'Deceiving the press corps'
Tensions between Mr. Obama’s campaign and the news media broke into full view when aides announced two weeks ago that he was flying to Chicago but then sent his plane — and traveling press corps — there while he stayed in Washington to meet with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The bureau chiefs of the major television news networks and The Associated Press wrote Mr. Obama’s top aides a stern letter on June 6, saying, “There are many ways in a campaign to control your message and conduct private meetings that do not involve deceiving the press corps.” The letter continued, “Going forward, we know from experience that covering a presidential campaign requires that some representatives of the press corps be with, or near, the senator at all times as part of the ‘security package,’ just as the White House press corps is with the president.”

Mr. Obama’s campaign has not indicated that it is ready to go quite so far.

“The press corps wouldn’t be doing its job it if weren’t demanding more access than we’re willing to give,” Ms. Dunn said. “We wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t occasionally irritate the press.”

Julie Bosman and Sarah Wheaton contributed reporting.

This story, , originally appeared in The New York Times.