POLITICS: PennAve

On his heels, Obama takes charm offensive to the press

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Politics,White House,Barack Obama,PennAve,Susan Crabtree

With his approval rating in a free fall, President Obama over the past couple of weeks has started a concerted outreach effort to engage a part of his constituency he usually takes for granted: the press.

On the ride home from Europe on Air Force One Wednesday night, Obama paid an unannounced and off-the-record visit to a group of reporters who were traveling with him to cover the G-8 summit and his speech at Berlin's Brandenburg gate.

The terse press pool report about the president and first family returning to Washington, landing at Joint Base Andrews at 12:48 a.m., from AFP's Stephen Collinson would have been thoroughly routine except for one line: "The president paid an off-the-record visit to the press cabin about two hours into the flight."

Obama has dropped by to visit the press cabin at the back of Air Force One from time to time, but casual facetime between reporters and the president has been rarer than expected.

Over the course of the 2012 campaign, veteran White House correspondents groused about how infrequent the visits had become  so infrequent that reporters would sarcastically suggest, with a long eye-roll, that the president might pop back and see them while Air Force One hopscotched between Iowa, New Hampshire and Colorado.

But Obama's private powwow with reporters Wednesday follows another surprise off-the-record session June 11. Obama stopped by unannounced on a briefing between a select group of reporters from some of the nation's largest print and online outlets and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough.

The New York Times' White House reporter, Peter Baker, afterward expressed misgivings that Obama surprised them with an off-the-record session and noted that if he had known, he would have reconsidered whether to attend.

White House officials regularly meet with a select group of roughly two dozen reporters for background briefing sessions, where those attending can quote the aides only as "senior administration officials." Lately, though, briefings and surprise visits from Obama are far more orchestrated.

Last month Press Secretary Jay Carney had the majority of the press corps bristling when he held a private session on Benghazi with a handful of reporters right before his regular scheduled briefing with the full press corps. Earlier in the month, Carney huddled privately with a few left-wing bloggers.

The spate of presidential drop-bys and private briefings are hardly random, occurring in a time of crisis for the White House amid a series of scandals that has the administration on its heels like never before.

Obama's poll numbers have dropped an astonishing eight percentage points over the last month to 45 percent, the president's lowest rating in more than 18 months, according to a CNN/ORC International survey released Monday. Perhaps most damaging for Obama's legacy, the decline in his approval rating was fueled by a drop in support from younger Americans.

Reporters, as a group, are particularly uneasy with Obama after revelations that the Justice Department had secretly gathered records from more than 20 phone lines of Associated Press reporters and editors and phone and email records of Fox News reporter James Rosen  all in an effort to plug national security leaks.

The Justice Department tried to sit down with a group of journalists to explain itself, but even that effort made negative headlines when news outlets disagreed with the off-the-record parameters and the New York Times refused to attend.

In early March, the only charm offensive Obama was making was to Republicans after both sides failed to reach a deal to avoid $85 billion in sequester cuts from taking effect. The series of dinners and one-on-one phone calls with GOP senators came after years of tense negotiations and complaints from both sides of the aisle that the president had failed to engage Congress on a host of legislative priorities.

After a long campaign, the last thing on Obama's mind was trying to cozy up to the press. In fact, the president was so disengaged with the press that White House aides kept a group who had traveled with him down to Florida cooped up in a van the entire weekend out of ear or eye shot while he golfed with Tiger Woods.

The White House press corps publicly expressed "extreme frustration" with their lack of access to the president - even for photo-ops - so Obama visited the back of Air Force One for an off-the-record talk that lasted 10 minutes. Some of those present for the encounter said Obama seemed like he had come back to check in on the reporters only grudgingly on the advice of aides and seemed prickly and detached.

What a difference four months  and at least three major controversies  can make.

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