Barack Obama’s White House is spending more than $80,000 a week to staff its old and new media offices. Add the price of speechwriters and the White House communications tab reaches nearly $100,000 a week, or nearly $5 million a year-and that is for salaries alone.
Based on the coverage the President has garnered so far, it is money well spent.
Accuracy In Media gathered the data from the White House’s annual salary report to Congress, which was released last week. AIM identified a total of 66 staffers with some connection to Obama’s messaging machine-press secretaries and assistants, communications directors, new media specialists, speechwriters, and the staff of the new Office of Public Engagement.
The latter group, which employs 13 people at a cost of $1,090,200 a year, organizes events like last week’s online healthcare forum in Virginia to take the White House’s message directly to the public. Valerie Jarrett, who earns the top White House rate of $172,200 a year as assistant to the president for public engagement, hosted the event.
The White House billed the healthcare discussion as a virtual town hall, but both the mainstream media and bloggers from the left and the right have maligned it as stagecraft.
“Obama’s healthcare forum was like last year’s CNN/YouTube debates-only instead of CNN producers hand-picking the video questions, here the White House eliminated the middleman!” complained Micah Sifry of techPresident.
Obama’s Office of Public Engagement replaced the more traditional Office of Public Liaison. The mission is the same-to connect the public with the White House-but the techniques are different. Obama’s team has incorporated online video, blogs and other interactive elements, including tightly managed town halls, into the outreach mix.
Obama also quadrupled the size of the public liaison staff. According to the last Bush administration staff salary report, President Bush employed three people in his liaison office at a cost of $335,500.
Obama thus far has kept his promise to cap all salaries of aides earning more than $100,000, but he is spending far more money on new media experts than Bush, an indication of Obama’s desire to modernize the press operation.
Although other staffers undoubtedly did work on the White House website and other Internet projects, Bush’s dedicated new media team appears to have consisted of two people-a specialty media director who earned $84,000 a year and a website assistant who earned $34,000.
By contrast, Obama has the 11 employees in the Office of Public Engagement and another nine aides with titles such as new media director, new media creative director, deputy director of video and e-mail content/design lead. Those nine earn nearly $700,000 a year combined.
The White House irritated the press corps earlier this year when it prevented reporters from covering the President’s photo op with the national championship women’s basketball team from the University of Connecticut. Instead, Obama’s own media team produced a professional-style video report and released it several days after the event.
ABC News White House reporter Jake Tapper wondered, “Do Obama White House officials think their media coverage isn’t flattering enough?”
They have no rational reason not to trust a press corps that thinks Obama is “sort of God” (according to Evan Thomas), arranges questions with the press team and airs one-sided special reports from the White House. But it’s obvious from the way the White House has been controlling reporters at press conferences, producing its own pool reports and orchestrating faux town halls that Obama wants even more unfiltered control over both his message and his public image than past presidents.
He is willing to pay millions of taxpayer dollars to achieve that goal.
Overall, Obama is spending about 12 percent more for his communications operation than Bush-$4.97 million compared with $4.44 million. Along with Jarrett in the public engagement office, the top earners at $172,200 are communications director Anita Dunn, press secretary Robert Gibbs and speechwriting director Jonathan Favreau.
The other communications staffers making more than $100,000 a year are:
— Christina Tchen, the deputy assistant in the public engagement office ($153,500);
— Deputy communications director Howard Pfeiffer ($150,000);
— Michael Strautmanis, a special assistant in the public engagement office ($139,500);
— New media director Robert (Macon) Phillips ($115,000);
— Deputy press secretaries William Burton, Joshua Earnest and Jennifer Psaki ($113,000);
— The first lady’s communications director, Camille Johnston ($102,000);
— Media affairs director Elizabeth Reynolds ($102,000);
— And deputy speechwriting director Benjamin Rhodes ($102,000);
Obama’s press operation is different than Bush’s in ways besides the emphasis on Internet-driven media that bypasses the press corps. He has communications directors assigned to specific regions, for example-Adam Abrams to the West, Amy Brundage to the Midwest, Moira Muntz to the Northeast and Gannet Tseggai, to the South. Each earns $65,000 a year.
Obama also has staffers who cater to minority media outlets. Corey Ealons, the African America media director, gets $78,000, while Luis Miranda’s salary as Hispanic media director is $65,000.
The outreach to minority reporters already has generated a positive return for Obama on the taxpayers’ investment. Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz noted last week that leading black, female writers who have been given special access to first lady Michelle Obama have written “with enthusiasm, in some cases even admiration, about the first lady as a long-awaited role model for black women.”
The Obama media machine is up and running, but it could backfire if the media gain some self-respect and tire of being manipulated on behalf of the President’s image and agenda.