Obama's Media Strategy: 'Pick the Target, Freeze It, Personalize It and Polarize It'

Although President Barack Obama is only 58 days into his term, there has been a noticeable trend in how the new administration is handling its critics in the media: let no criticism go unanswered and mobilize a formidable group of mainstream media and “net roots” allies to savage the critic.<?xml:namespace prefix = o />

It all started just days after President Barack Obama took office. Obama, his Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and his press secretary Robert Gibbs have taken the unprecedented step of directly responding to critics by name. The first target was Rush Limbaugh, and then came the two CNBC personalities – Chicago Mercantile Exchange floor reporter Rick Santelli and “Mad Money” host Jim Cramer.

But each of these actions by Obama, Emanuel or Gibbs has triggered a media-feeding frenzy and ensuing grassroots efforts to capitalize on the media attention and destroy the target.

Obama Day Three: ‘You Can’t Just Listen to Rush Limbaugh and Get Things Done’


On Jan. 23, after meeting with congressional Republicans about the $1 trillion stimulus package, the New York Post reported Obama called on GOP leaders not to listen to a voice that has been attacking liberal ideology for two decades – conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh.

“‘You can't just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done,’ he told top GOP leaders, whom he had invited to the White House to discuss his nearly $1 trillion stimulus package,” wrote New York Post <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 />Washington bureau Chief Charles Hurt.

Limbaugh responded to Byron York, formerly of National Review, with a lengthy letter detailing all his qualms with the Obama stimulus proposal. The response was published on the National Review Web site on Jan. 24. However Limbaugh suggested that this was part of a strategy Obama was taught by controversial community organizer Saul Alinsky, which required a degree of manipulating an opponent’s public image.

“One more thing, Byron,” Limbaugh wrote. “Your publication and website have documented Obama’s ties to the teachings of Saul Alinsky while he was community organizing in Chicago. Here is Rule 13 of Alinsky's Rules for Radicals: ‘Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.’

Limbaugh-White House Feud Escalates


Since the late-January dust-up between the Obama administration and Limbaugh, several other back-and-forth exchanges of words have occurred, except they were via the intermediary White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

One of the most important points occurred on Fox News Channel’s Jan. 21 “Hannity,” where Limbaugh told fellow conservative media host Sean Hannity that he hoped Obama failed in instituting what Limbaugh called a “far-left collectivism.”


“So I shamelessly say, no, I want him to fail,” Limbaugh said. “If his agenda is a far- left collectivism, some people say socialism, as a conservative heartfelt, deeply, why would I want socialism to succeed?”

Limbaugh reiterated that sentiment at a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Feb. 28. That led to a dust-up with he and Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, but it also drew the ire of many mainstream media critics – NBC’s “Today,” MSNBC personalities, Newsweek magazine, CNN and even CBS “Late Show” host David Letterman.

And, as Jonathan Martin of Politico reported March 4, all this isn't coincidence, it is an effort to frame Limbaugh in the Alinsky mode.

"Top Democrats believe they have struck political gold by depicting Rush Limbaugh as the new face of the Republican Party, a full-scale effort first hatched by some of the most familiar names in politics and now being guided in part from inside the White House," Martin wrote. "The strategy took shape after Democratic strategists Stanley Greenberg and James Carville included Limbaugh’s name in an October poll and learned their longtime tormentor was deeply unpopular with many Americans, especially younger voters."

So when Gibbs began to publicly answer Limbaugh, and when scathing Rush criticisms began to appear all over the mainstream media, the administration was creating the playbook it would later use against CNBC’s Rick Santelli and Jim Cramer.


First Santelli, then Cramer and the Backlash

On CNBC’s “Squawk Box” Feb. 19, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange floor reporter, along with several traders, expressed his outrage about President Barack Obama’s plan to “spread the wealth” for people that didn’t deserve it – specifically Obama’s mortgage bailout plan.

“I tell you what, I have an idea,” Santelli shouted. “The new administration is big on computers and technology – how about this, president and new administration? Why don’t you put up a Web site to have people vote on the Internet as a referendum to see if we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages, or would we like to at least buy cars and buy houses in foreclosure and give them to people that might have a change to actually prosper down the road and reward people that could carry the water instead of drink the water.”


Santelli’s rant made the top of the Drudge Report, but it also earned criticism   from White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, who suggested the Chicago Mercantile Exchange floor reporter didn’t have a grasp of the Obama mortgage plan. Gibbs went as far as to invite Santelli to the White House for a personal explanation of the plan.

After Santelli faded from the spotlight, CNBC “Mad Money” host Jim Cramer had his turn with the White House.

During the March 3 White House press briefing, Tom Costello of NBC News asked Gibbs to respond to remarks from Cramer, who was described as "not a conservative," made on NBC's March 3 "Today" show that he "thought the president's policies, his agenda had contributed to the greatest wealth destruction he's ever seen by a president."

"This is where I have to probably be careful," Gibbs said in a scathing attack of the “Mad Money” host. "Let me build on what the president said and that is, without understanding the basis for what Mr. Cramer said. I'm not entirely sure what he's pointing to, to make some of the statements that he's made and you can go back and look at any number of statements that he's made in the past about the economy and wonder where some of the backup for those are too."

The war of words escalated and drew in new combatants when Santelli canceled a scheduled appearance on Comedy Central’s March 4 “The Daily Show.” Host Jon Stewart picked the entire CNBC network apart and mocked Santelli’s rant.

“Now, Mr. Santelli was invited to come on this program and accepted the invitation and then on Friday, canceled – or I guess the phrase would be bailed out,” Stewart said. “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Hey, how many people would have liked to see Santelli come on this program? Are you listening? Are you listening Rick Santelli?”

Sarcastically referring to CNBC as the “best of the best,” Stewart mocked Santelli and his network for every bad statement, question or prediction by its reporters in the past two years, including CNBC “Mad Money” host Jim Cramer’s bad call that now-failed Bear Stearns was “OK” just days before its collapse.

Cramer vs. Stewart and the Aftermath

After Comedy Central “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart included “Mad Money” host Jim Cramer in his angry tirade against CNBC’s, Cramer fired back, suggesting Stewart had taken some of his remarks out of context.

The two went back-and-forth, trading barbs on the airwaves until the “Mad Money” host sat down for an interview with Stewart on his March 12 broadcast. Initially, Cramer was apologetic for his the way the entire financial crisis had gone done from a media point-of-view, but Stewart came out swinging.

“What we are getting is, listen you knew what the banks were doing. And yet we’re touting it for months and months,” Stewart said. “The entire network was. And so now to pretend that this was some sort of crazy, once in a lifetime tsunami that nobody could have seen coming is disingenuous at best and criminal at worst.”

Cramer never recovered during the interview, and the event wasn’t talked about much on CNBC. Cramer has completely neglected talking about the Comedy Central appearance in his regular CNBC appearance and his “Mad Money” show.

But Cramer’s “Daily Show” beat-down didn’t go unnoticed by Robert Gibbs. In his March 13 press briefing, Gibbs said, " I enjoyed it thoroughly."He praised Stewart for handling an "uncomfortable" situation and took a jab at CNBC's decision not to post it on CNBC.com.

"Despite, even as Mr. Stewart said, it may have been uncomfortable to conduct and uncomfortable to watch - I thought it was, I thought somebody asked a lot of tough questions and I am not surprised that the video of Mr. Cramer's appearance doesn't appear on CNBC's Web site today."


‘Nut’ Roots United

All of these events – Limbaugh, Santelli and Gibbs – have presented an opportunity for liberal groups to rally their members. One group produced an ad encouraging people to call Republican members of Congress to disassociate themselves from Limbaugh.

But between Gibbs, Stewart and other outlets attacking CNBC, some left-wing storefronts smelled blood and have launched an all-out attack on the financial network. An e-mail sent by the left-wing Campaign for America’s Future suggested subscribers to “hold CNBC accountable.”

“When The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart grilled CNBC's Jim Cramer last week, he did what few others in the traditional media were willing to do: Expose CNBC's strategy of climbing in bed with the CEOs who created this financial crisis, instead of aggressively reporting on them,” an e-mail from Bill Scher, the online campaign manager for CAF said. “But one decent interview is not enough to ferret the truth out of those now clamoring for taxpayer bailout money.”

The e-mail included a link to an online petition that included several prominent liberals including:

    Dean Baker, Co-director of the Center for Economic Policy Christopher Hayes, Washington Editor, The Nation Eric Alterman, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress Markos Moulitsas, Founder, DailyKos.com

CNBC’s Silence – A PR Mistake?

CNBC has been reluctant to respond to these attacks. At this writing, it has not responded to a March 16  Associated Press article reporting that liberal groups were targeting the network.

Howard Kurtz, media columnist for The Washington Post, in an interview with Don Imus on WABC’s “Imus in the Morning Show,” noted how CNBC has rolled over and played dead as the criticism has come. First Santelli was forced to back out of a “Daily Show” appearance that set this escapade off. Then, according to Kurtz, backed out of Kurtz’s CNN “Reliable Sources” show. Ignoring the media has put the network in a precarious position.

“Let me just say, Santelli was supposed to go on my show and CNBC yanked him,” Kurtz said. “CNBC executives are not doing interviews about this whole thing. They put out about a three-second statement on Friday. This is not brilliant public relations in my view. I mean they’re network is under assault for what it does and I think their network can defend what they do to an extent, but they’ve chosen not to do that.”

CNBC may want to rethink its reticence, particularly in light of more revelations about just how coordinated many of its tormenters on the left really are. On March 17, Politico reported the existence of the JournoList, where “several hundred left-leaning bloggers, political reporters, magazine writers, policy wonks and academics have talked stories and compared notes in an off-the-record online meeting space.”