If the tone of coverage of Obama’s first days in office differed significantly from that of Bill Clinton and George Bush, so too did the focus of stories about the new President. Compared with his predecessors, the press narrative about Obama featured considerably less attention to policy and ideology and substantially more to such matters as Obama’s leadership ability, management style and political skills—coverage often cast in a highly tactical and strategic context.

To some extent at least, those differences reflect the unique circumstances under which Obama took office. Faced with an historic financial crisis, he reacted with a sequence of major initiatives that seemed to orient coverage more toward assessments of whether Obama was succeeding than the philosophy and details of what he was proposing.

This focus on character and leadership is evident first in the topics of the Obama coverage—the basic subject of each story or segment. Fully 44% of all stories studied dealt with Obama himself, or his key appointments, as opposed to policy issues.

That is double the percentage of stories that were focused on these personal aspects of Bush’s early presidency (22%) and substantially more than that of Clinton in 1993 (26%).

Most of this coverage, fully 26% of all stories studied, specifically concerned Obama’s management style and political skills (compared with 11% for both Bush and Clinton in the first 60 days of their tenures.)

Meanwhile, a notably smaller percentage of Obama’s coverage than his predecessors’ focused on policy, or where he wanted to take the country. Stories at least nominally about policy made up 55% of all the Obama coverage studied, compared with 71% for Clinton and 74% for Bush.

When policy was the subject, which of Obama’s initiatives got the attention?  Fully three quarters of his domestic policy stories involved either his budget or the economic crisis. That intense focus on one overarching financial theme also stands in contrast to his two predecessors, who generated substantial attention for a wider variety of domestic initiatives.

In his first months in office, for example, Clinton generated considerable attention to his approach to gays in the military (7%) and health care and issues affecting seniors (5%). A substantial portion of Bush’s policy-oriented coverage was focused on education (6%), religion (6%), and the environment (5%). In contrast, Obama received little coverage of any domestic issue not directly related to the economic crisis or budget matters.

And despite the series of daunting foreign policy challenges facing Obama—from Iran’s nuclear ambitions to the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan—there was also less coverage of foreign policy and defense issues for the new President (16%) than for either Clinton (20%) or Bush (18%).     

One reason for the greater focus on character and leadership seemed to be that in trying to take stock of everything that was happening in the Obama administration the media focused on the president’s temperament and management style as the unifying theme.

On February 15, for instance, three weeks after Obama’s inauguration, the Washington Post editorialized about a presidency that had already been “through a whirlwind,” and lauded Obama for a style perhaps well-suited to navigating such a grave economic downturn. “The sober approach Mr. Obama has taken since his election, underscoring the severity of the situation and taking pains to avoid over-promising results, may help keep the patient calm in the months that it will take to gauge the medication’s effectiveness,” the Post declared.

This personal focus of the media coverage is even more striking when one drills down deeper into how stories—especially news accounts—were put together or framed.

Only a quarter of all the Obama stories studied (26%) were framed around explaining the implications of his policies—about half the percentage of Bush 48% and far less than Clinton 35%.

Far more (39%) were constructed around the strategy and tactics of the Obama presidency. That is nearly double the percentage for Clinton (22%) and triple of that for Bush (14%).

Finally, the more personal nature of the coverage is reinforced by still another measure that the study examined, the underlying theme of the stories—or the basis upon which the presidents were being evaluated. Where the bulk of stories evaluated both Bush and Clinton based on his policy agenda (65% for Bush and 58% for Clinton), a noticeably smaller number did so far Obama (50%). In contrast, a higher percentage of stories were assessing Obama based on his leadership ability (43%), high than either Bush (31%) or Clinton (37%).

Whether the evaluations were positive, negative or mixed, Obama’s leadership ability and strategic skills—rather then the merits of specific proposals—were often the focus of media coverage in the first months of his presidency  

On February 13, less than a month after Obama took office, those qualities were evaluated on PBS’s NewsHour, when senior correspondent Judy Woodruff asked commentator David Brooks what he was “seeing” with the new President.
“I mean, he’s passed this major piece of legislation, he’s passed SCHIP. From his perspective, he’s doing fine,” said Brooks. “Where he’s failing is that he set such remarkably high standards for himself: no lobbyists, change politics, bipartisan…. So far, you have to give him a B, not up to the standards he set, but—but successful by his own right.”
A less flattering assessment came when former George Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, in an interview on MSNBC, criticized the new administration for targeting conservative radio talk host Rush Limbaugh.

“The issue is the behavior of the president of the United States and his staff. Which Barack Obama is it? Is it the post-partisan Obama or the Barack Obama who sends his staff out to act childish?” Fleischer asked, adding that Obama “is acting more as a petty partisan instead of as the president.”

Why the different Obama focus?

The different focus for Obama coverage may well reflect the reality that his first days in office have been very different from his predecessors. In response to the fears of a widespread economic meltdown—perhaps the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression—he has moved aggressively and quickly with a series of major and sometimes transformative economic initiatives.

On February 10, his Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner unveiled the financial sector bailout package known as TARP II. Three days later, Congress passed the White House-supported $787 billion stimulus package. On February 18, Obama went to Phoenix and announced a housing market plan estimated to ultimately cost up to $275 billion. On February 24, Obama delivered a major prime-time speech to Congress on the economy that was largely designed for consumption in America’s living rooms. Two days later, he unveiled a $3.6 billion budget that dramatically re-ordered the nation’s domestic priorities. Then in late March, Geithner came forward with a detailed plan to deal with “toxic assets” in the banking sector.

It seems likely that the strategic nature of Obama’s coverage, and the focus on his leadership, is inextricably linked to the breakneck pace of his initiatives—some of which required Congressional approval and some of which did not. Given the sheer volume of news generated by the President, much of the media’s focus—rather than detailing the ideological or philosophical underpinnings of Obama’s decisions—has been devoted to assessing how well he is doing. Put simply: Is he winning or losing?

In early 2009, the press seemingly tried to answer that question hour-by-hour and day-by -day. One way of evaluating that was to examine the President’s track record with Congress. That was certainly the case with the hotly debated stimulus package that ultimately passed with minimal Republican support. But another method for tallying up Obama’s scorecard was to gauge the impact of his actions on the economy—by looking at everything from unemployment figures to housing foreclosures; from bank earnings statements to the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

One other element that may have affected his coverage is the trend of the news industry—exemplified on the cable news talk shows—toward an ever more immediate horse race-oriented evaluation of the news. The question “how did the President do last week?” on the weekend network panel shows has now morphed into “how did the President do last hour?” on the nightly cable programs.

The growing power of this “snap judgment” culture in the media—often mixed in with ideological commentary—may also have contributed to the greater strategic focus on Obama.

On the February 13 NewsHour, Judy Woodruff prefaced the Obama report card segment by noting that the new president has been in office for three-and-a-half weeks.

“It’s not too soon to ask” how he’s doing, she ventured.

In the current media environment, it’s not considered to soon to ask after three-and-a-half minutes.

Differences in Obama Coverage among Media Sectors and Outlets

In directly comparing Obama’s coverage to his two predecessors’, PEJ used the same sample—Newsweek, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the CBS, NBC, ABC and PBS nightly newscasts—for all three presidents. But to get a fuller sense of how the new administration was covered and reflect the more diverse media landscape today, we also broadened Obama’s news universe to include 49 media outlets in five sectors—online, newspaper, radio, broadcast news and cable news.

What is noteworthy in the expanded media universe are some significant differences in how various sectors and outlets covered the early months of the Obama tenure.

One broad trend finds that the tone of Obama’s coverage was more favorable in two traditional “old media” sectors—newspapers and network news—than in two newer platforms, cable news and online.

Indeed, striking similarities emerge between newspapers and the three commercial broadcast networks. In both cases, Obama’s positive stories outnumbered the negative ones by about a two-to-one margin (41% to 22% in newspapers and 40% to 19% in network). The neutral coverage in both sectors was also pretty much in sync—37% in newspapers and 41% on network.

The daily papers’ overall positive tone for Obama was evident in the both the news reports in the expanded newspaper sample (39% positive versus 18% negative) and in the op eds and editorials studied in the Washington Post and New York Times (43% positive and 27% negative).

Online, the verdict was considerably more mixed. There, the largest percentage of Obama’s coverage was neutral (48%) and the positive coverage (30%) outweighed the negative (23%) by a relatively modest amount.

On cable news, the tone was equally divided. Fully 38% of the President’s stories were considered neutral compared with 32% positive and 30% negative. But looking at cable in aggregate is somewhat deceptive. For the balance came less in the coverage across the cable channels than in the average of what were three distinctly different portrayals of the president depending on which channel you watched.

While the sample sizes are too small to break out specific numbers by channel, the differences are clear enough to characterize. On Fox, the majority of Obama stories were clearly negative in tone, the only outlet studied where that was the case. On MSNBC, the majority of stories were clearly positive in tone, the only outlet studied other than Newsweek where that was the case. Indeed, in that respect, the two channels offered divergent images of Obama.

CNN, meanwhile, looked a great deal more like the rest of the media.

While the sample is small, it is not the first time the pattern has showed up. Indeed, the findings mirror the same ideological chasm that PEJ documented in the final months of the presidential campaign in a study entitled “The Color of News”—in which Fox and MSNBC saw the campaign strikingly differently from each other and from the rest of the media, with numbers that are quite similar.

In the first 100 days there are many examples of the dueling views of Obama’s early tenure driven by ideological prime time hosts on MSNBC and Fox.

On his February 16 show, for instance, Fox News host Sean Hannity blasted the president for the just-passed stimulus bill. “I think this bill shows a very radical socialist agenda … and there’s a certain level of dishonesty that I see,” Hannity declared during a discussion with former George Bush advisor Karl Rove, adding that “If you’re right, I’m right, and there’s a dishonesty factor, what does that mean for the future leadership of Barack Obama?”

On his February 10 program, MSNBC host Keith Olbermann applauded Obama for trying to sell his stimulus package in not-so-friendly public venues. “A curious juxtaposition of presidents,” Olbermann asserted. “The last one, if he was trying to sell us war, speaks in front of a hand-picked crowd of military families or conservative veterans. This one, if he’s trying to sell us economic stimulus, instead speaks in front of unscreened audiences in two cities that voted for his opponent …”

It should be noted the pattern is less pronounced in daytime, when cable tends to be newsier and often focuses on breaking events. There, the three cable channels generated about twice as much positive as negative coverage about Obama with half the stories falling into the neutral category, not too different from the media overall.

Another finding from “The Color of News” study was reinforced in the first months of the Obama administration. Corporate siblings NBC and MSNBC are very different entities editorially. While MSNBC provided the most favorable coverage of the new president on cable by a wide margin, NBC’s coverage stood out in the broadcast universe for being considerably less positive and more negative about Obama than either CBS or ABC.  

Notably, two public media outlets had the highest percentage of neutral coverage of the Obama presidency. On PBS’ NewsHour and National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, about half of the coverage was neutral compared to 40% in the media overall. One significant difference, however, was that the NewsHour’s Obama stories were almost four times more positive than negative while on Morning Edition, his coverage was only moderately more positive than negative.

Both PBS and NPR also distinguished themselves from the rest of the media when it came to the topics constituting Obama’s coverage. The NewsHour and Morning Edition devoted the highest percentage of stories to foreign affairs—22% and 17% respectively, compared with 12% for the press in general.