in search of photos and information about Bo, the Portuguese water dog who became the First Pet back in April, you will have to do a search. Unlike the previous administration’s Scottish terrier, Barney who for a time had his own dedicated section of the White House homepage and even his own
, Bo is a quieter presence. A little light probing yields his official portrait and the occasional candid of the dog frolicking with the first family, but, unlike Barney, whose role was to “humanize” the Bush White House, Bo’s isn’t the face this administration is most eager to put forward.
The White House website is a young institution, only in its third administration. The first, in the Clinton years, was primitive by today’s standards, and its role was to provided access to policy documents.
because, like the blogs and websites of so many more ordinary households, it seemed to shine a light on the inner life of the place, not necessarily what was actually going on, but what the administration sincerely wanted us to believe was going on. The Bush White House understood that the web is a powerful conduit, a way to reach the public without the nasty meddling of the Washington press corps, so the site became a pageant of the administration’s fantasy life: photos of the president looking like he’s in charge on 9/11, photos of the president as a benevolent and decent man, bestowing largesse, photos of him speaking on, say, AIDS policy with one of his trademark Orwellian slogans behind him such as, “Compassion in Action.”
As Dan Froomkin, who wrote the Washington Post’s White House Blog during the Bush years told me, “Well, it’s propaganda.” Yes it was. Obvious propaganda, clumsily executed, as weirdly off-kilter as Soviet social realism.
The Bush website had a stars-and-stripes motif early on, and it gave way in the waning years of his administration to a simpler design based on a powder blue background. (At some point, Barney was banished to the White House Kids page.) The current graphics, while descended from the Bush website’s blue period, are infinitely more sophisticated. Boxes and shading are thoughtfully deployed and Bush’s slapdash sans-serif has given way to a careful menu of typographic approaches, with a serif font used for headlines and more formal text blocks and a sans-serif used for the ostensibly less formal blog copy. The overall look suggests that you are invited to a very prestigious function, like a royal wedding.
But Froomkin’s words are as true now as they were five years ago. It’s still propaganda. It’s just better propaganda. The website is now clearly calibrated toward advancing the administration’s legislative goals. The top of the page is dominated by four rotating lead stories, framed in a blue box, each illustrated with powerful photo. Two days after the president’s speech outlining his strategy for Afghanistan, story number one was "The New Way Forward"
illustrated with a photo by veteran White House photographer Pete Souza. Obama stands at a lectern before an audience of West Point cadets. It’s the gray uniforms and young attentive faces, not the president, that dominate the picture. Story number two is "Who Do You Trust?" accompanied by a portrait of an unsmiling Joe Biden. It links to a video of the vice president discussing health care reform with a group of doctors and nurses. Number 3 is “Educate to Innovate,” a campaign to get students excited about math, science and technology. Obama, in the photo, is watching a student demonstrate a Rube Goldbergian contraption. Fourth is “Health Insurance Reform & Women” accompanied by a portrait of Michelle Obama looking earnestly at the camera, a simple black outfit offset by a string of pearls, which links to a video of her discussing health care “as a woman and as a mom.”
President Barack Obama looks out over the South Lawn from a window in the Green Room of the White House, before delivering remarks at an event honoring educators, January 6, 2010. Photo: Pete Souza
The message you get immediately from the website is one of a White House that is superhumanly focused on its priorities: Afghanistan, health care, education and healthcare. A few weeks later, the four top stories are healthcare, jobs, accountability on Wall Street and jobs. If you have any doubt what the administration is hoping to accomplish at any given moment, you can just flip through those top-of-the-web-page stories.
Just below the main story box is a smaller box that also leads to a presidential discussion of health care. Then there are two columns of text, at the left a stream of the latest stories from the White House blog and, on the right, a stream of “featured legislation.” This is the website of a very serious White House. What this means is that unlike the website of the Bush years, it’s not such good entertainment. Perhaps if you’re a Republican or a tea-bagger, this site is as hilarious for you as the Bush site was for me, but what I see when I look at it is an attempt at unrelenting diligence.
There are also a number of blogs. The main White House blog is a policy wonk’s dream. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis hosts a live chat on her “regulatory agenda.” The president meets with Al Gore ahead of his trip to Copenhagen. You can vote for the winners of the president’s SAVE award, an ideas competition for government employees to save taxpayer dollars. Other blogs include the “Office of Public Engagement” blog:
“The Office of Public Engagement is the embodiment of the President’s goal of making government inclusive, transparent, accountable and responsible.
“We create and coordinate opportunities for direct dialogue between the Obama Administration and the American public, while bringing new voices to the table and ensuring that everyone can participate and inform the work of the President.”
Here’s a sample post: “On Friday we hosted a reception commemorating the 540th anniversary of the birth of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the first guru in Sikhism. It was the first time that this holiday has ever been celebrated at the White House.”
Clearly these are not blogs in the loose-cannon, invective-spewing, Wonkette sense of the word. These are disciplined promotions, not of image, but of policy. It’s as if NPR were in the White House.
The only spot where the policy-driven program loosens up a bit is in the Photo of the Day feature, which debuted in October. Many of them are the work of Souza, who was the White House photographer during the Reagan administration and came back after documenting Obama’s political career in a book called The Rise of Barack Obama
. He is also director of the White House Photo Office, and it’s his photos that give the site its most compelling moments. Remember that shot of the president and Michelle Obama nuzzling in the service elevator between inaugural balls? That was his. "It tells a complete story," Souza said to the Washington Post
. "You know exactly what's going on." The story that’s being told in the photos of the day is of a White House that’s doing its best to avoid demagoguery. It is as if the collective weight of these images is being used to undercut the Obama-is-the-world’s-biggest-celebrity meme. The president is not even in many of the photos, and when he is depicted, he’s not always the focal point.
The caption on the December 1 photo says: “President Barack Obama reads as Marine One lifts off from the South Lawn of the White House,” but the photo is dominated by the helicopter itself and the Washington Monument. The president is a tiny figure framed by a square window like a character in an Advent calendar. On December 2: Three Marines in dress uniforms, two male and one female, look on as Michelle Obama “debuts the White House Christmas decorations” and “promotes the Marine Corps Toys for Tots” program. The interesting thing about this photo is that neither the first lady nor the Christmas decorations are visible in the picture. The two male Marines appear to be white, and stand at attention, their close-cropped heads, white belts and hands folded behind their backs. The only person looking at the camera is an African American female officer with a feminine bob and what looks to be a chest full of medals. Arguably, it is propaganda, but very carefully calibrated. On December 15, the photo du jour is of the presidential limo at a Home Depot in Alexandria, Virginia, where Obama has come to speak about energy-efficient retrofits. He is not in the photo. It is a picture that is less about the administration’s political agenda and more about the surreal nature of the presidency: the distinctive limo and the Secret Service agents look very strange parked in a big box store’s lumber aisle.
The photos of the day read to me like an attempt, largely successful, to depict the culture of the administration as one that is pointedly egalitarian. Some of the images are inevitably not that different from Bush-era photos: the Obama family dispenses food to the needy on Thanksgiving, Obama strides across the White House lawn after his helicopter lands. We’ve seen those kinds of images before. But my favorite pictures on the site show the backstage life of the White House, a rehearsal for the state dinner with the Indian Prime Minister, for example, in which the president is nowhere to be seen. It’s a bit like watching a snippet from an episode of The West Wing. The overall message is that real people are living real lives and doing real jobs in this distinctively unreal place.
And, of course, Bo shows up as the subject of the photo of the day from time to time. On December 3, Bo poses all by himself near a Christmas tree in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House. And on December 16, he’s shown after he’s hopped into the driver’s seat of a DC police car. The website demonstrates that the Obama White House is not immune to Bo’s allure, but unlike the previous administration, the cute doggy is not the single most appealing thing they have to offer.