It took a while, but Barack Obama's honeymoon is definitely over

Out of America: Noses among the Washington press corps are out of joint. There will be a price to pay

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The Independent Online

It's taken more than four years, but the honeymoon is officially over. Ever since he was elected, Republicans have claimed that the "mainstream media" they so despise have been hopelessly and irredeemably seduced by President Obama. They had a point. But this judgement now finally requires correcting.

"The President does not particularly like the Washington press corps," David Gregory, host of NBC's Meet the Press, the most venerable and watched of the Sunday political talk shows here, admitted the other day. And, he added, in a lot of respects, "that feeling is mutual".

Shocking words for those who believe that fawning media adulation has, for far too long, given Obama a free ride. In fact, however, tensions have been evident for a good while – albeit mostly in circumlocutory complaints about Obama's "aloof" and "remote" style, his silky disdain, his lack of a personal touch. Now a couple of events have brought them into the open.

The first was a curious spat between the White House and the journalist Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame. It all started with a Woodward article in The Washington Post to the effect that the sequester, the much-reviled federal spending cuts which have just come into force here, was an idea dreamt up by the White House.

Not so, a senior Obama administration official complained in a phone call, advising the celebrated journalist and author that he would "regret" his error. Woodward responded by claiming he had been "threatened" by the White House. There followed much mirth all round, given Woodward's status as the ultimate Washington insider, and de facto court scribe for Republican and Democratic presidents alike. After all, the man had faced real threats when bringing down Richard Nixon: why was he now moaning about the sort of treatment routine for any White House reporter worth his or her salt?

If that seemed an "inside-the-Beltway" flap, so, too, did the complaints from the White House press pool when Obama played a round of golf with Tiger Woods last month. Not only was the pool not informed, but it was barred from the private residential estate in Florida where the historic event took place. Adding insult to injury, the White House reporters were scooped by the gleeful tweets of the man from Golf Digest, who was allowed in.

Again, much ado about nothing, you might think. After all, cannot a man enjoy a weekend of golf in peace? Not if you are the leader of the free world. For the reporters whose job it is to cover Obama, this was a snub too far, prompting the White House Correspondents' Association to issue a formal statement expressing its "extreme frustration" at the "absolute" lack of access to the President for an entire weekend.

Spats between the White House and the press are, of course, nothing new; they are the normal, indeed the proper, state of affairs: "When the press stops abusing me, I'll know I'm in the wrong pew," Harry Truman once remarked. Like Truman and every other of his predecessors, Obama believes the press is obsessed with triviality, controversy and scandal at the expense of serious news. Meanwhile, the press accuses each new administration of having taken office pledging openness and transparency, only to wrap itself ever more tightly in secrecy.

But in Obama's case, this in-built conflict has been especially jarring. The Republicans were right to complain that for a good while he was given kid-glove treatment by much of the media, spared scrutiny on issues for which George W Bush would have been crucified. That Obama is a very private man has only compounded matters. Last night, the President and adversaries were due to poke fun at each other at the annual Gridiron Club dinner, hosted by Washington's media luminaries. But the jokes were unlikely to mask the fact that, as a second-term president facing no more elections, he needs the press less than ever – at least in its traditional form.

During this presidency, the splintering of the old media oligarchy has accelerated, and the White House has tailored its strategy accordingly. Obama pops up regularly on the social media. He gives interviews to local TV and radio stations, he appears on late-night shows and in fireside chats. Not only is Obama very good at it, with his cool humour and laid-back unflappability, but the strategy enables the White House to say that it is meeting its website commitment, to create "the most open and accessible administration in American history".

But quantity is no substitute for quality. For the most part, this is unfiltered spin, not substance. Despite the armies of bloggers and tweeters, for all the proliferation of "new media", the serious news agenda continues to be set by a clutch of major papers: The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. Yet not one of the trio has been accorded a presidential interview since 2010.

And maybe that omission, too, is starting to catch up with Obama. Endless spin eats away at credibility. Take the rumpus over the sequester, where the White House has tried to pin the blame on the Republicans, and warned of apocalyptic consequences – which, so far at least, have utterly failed to materialise.

True, the Republicans don't win any popularity prizes these days. But according to the polls, the President's approval rating has also tumbled in the past week as the public hold him no less responsible than his opponents for the mess. By no coincidence whatever, in exactly the sort of outreach his critics say has been so lacking, Obama invited a dozen Republican senators to dine with him on Wednesday in the neutral territory of a Washington hotel. Not only that, the White House paid the bill. If he did the same thing with the Washington press, he might buy himself a second honeymoon – and one that's cheap at the price.