Journalists flock to jobs in Obama administration GOP blasts pipeline; struggling news business cited as factor
President Obama vowed Tuesday to take more unilateral executive action to bypass Congress, and there’s fresh evidence that Democratic lawmakers in this election year would just as soon avoid the president, too.
“I’ve got a pen, and … I’ve got a phone,” Mr. Obama said at his first Cabinet meeting of the year at the White House. “And I can use that pen to sign executive orders and take executive actions and administrative actions that move the ball forward” to help middleclass families.
With Mr. Obama’s economic agenda stalled in the House, the president will demonstrate his executive authority Wednesday during a trip to North Carolina State University. Mr. Obama will promote “a new public-private effort to boost advanced manufacturing,” according to senior presidential adviser Dan Pfeiffer.
But the trip is already proving to be a mild embarrassment to the White House due to the expected absence of Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, who is facing a tough re-election campaign this year and whose poll numbers suggest she has been hurt by her support of Mr. Obama’s troubled new health care law. Mrs. Hagan’s office said she will stay in Washington because the Senate is in session, an excuse that a CNN reporter at the White House daily press briefing likened to “the congressional equivalent of ‘I can’t go, I’m washing my hair.’”
White House press secretary Jay Carney bristled at the analogy and said Mrs. Hagan is “working on important business” at the Capitol. He said the trip focused on the economy is not “an issue of electoral politics.”
But with Mr. Obama far less popular than a year ago, and the flaws of Obamacare still a potential campaign issue, the president’s team is well aware there may be more incumbent Democrats like Mrs. Hagan who are reluctant to stand on the same stage with him. Mrs. Hagan did appear with the president in October 2011 when he stopped in Asheville, N.C., and she made it back to Washington for votes later in the day.
“With her political career on the line, Kay Hagan is suddenly too embarrassed to be seen with President Obama in North Carolina,” said North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Claude Pope. “North Carolinians know that despite Kay Hagan’s efforts to hide from President Obama, she voted with his liberal agenda 96 percent of the time, enthusiastically endorsed him for reelection, and has been one of the strongest supporters of the Obamacare disaster.”
The president will meet with Senate Democrats privately Wednesday night to discuss political strategy ahead of his State of the Union address on Jan. 28. Mrs. Hagan is expected to attend that session behind closed doors.
As he convened his first Cabinet meeting of the new year, Mr. Obama told reporters that struggling families cannot wait while Congress dithers with competing jobs bills.
“We are not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we’re providing Americans the kind of help that they need,” he said.
But House Speaker John A. Boehner told reporters Tuesday that it is Congress that is waiting — waiting for the president to cooperate on several bills that would create more jobs, after a dismal report on last month’s weak job growth nationally. He said Mr. Obama should use his phone to call Congress.
“The fact is, the president’s taken his eye off the ball — taken his eye off of the issue of jobs,” said Mr. Boehner, Ohio Republican. “If the president’s serious about wanting to improve the prospects for our economy — and higher wages and better jobs — all he has to do is pick up the phone and call Democrat leaders in the Senate and ask them to move one of these dozens of bills that we’ve sent over there that would help put Americans back to work.”
Journalism and open government groups have criticized President Obama for falling short of promises to increase transparency, but that hasn’t stopped reporters and editors from gobbling up jobs in his administration.
One of the latest to go from covering the administration to promoting it is Dorie Nolt, who left her job as education reporter for The Associated Press to become press secretary at the Education Department.
She joins at least 22 other former journalists who have worked or who continue to work in the administration, according to White House announcements, ethics filings and media reports.
They include prominent media figures like former Time Magazine employees Jay Carney, the reporter turned White House press secretary, and managing editor Richard Stengel, who took a roughly quarter million dollar bonus before he left for an under secretary post at the State Department.
Conservatives have blasted the pipeline of journalists heading into the administration as evidence of media bias. Last year, when Mr. Stengel’s appointment became public, radio show host Rush Limbaugh said there was “an incestuous relationship.”
But journalism experts say for other less well-known figures in the media, the move likely has less to do with politics than the prospect of better pay and job stability at a time when the news business is struggling.
“There are fewer journalism jobs and they don’t pay as well,” said Bryce Nelson, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California whose resume includes working as a Washington correspondent for The Los Angeles Times.
But there’s another upside beyond financial considerations, he added.
“People take these government jobs not only because there is more stability and more money, but they can increase their power and influence in journalism,” he said.
Mr. Nelson pointed to Bill Moyers, the former aide to President Johnson who went on to become publisher of Newsday. A more recent example is George Stephanopoulos, who was communications director in the Clinton administration and now works as chief political correspondent at ABC News.
For the administration, the lure of reporters is that they know how reporters work in ways that probably escape public relations professionals.
“Politicians think reporters can help them because they know how reporters think,” said Mike Shanahan, a former White House reporter who teaches at George Washington University.
“There’s always that belief in Washington if you hire an experienced reporter then you can control your message more easily,” he said.
Even if a political appointment lasts just a few years, a high-profile communications position in the administration can open other job opportunities at K Street consulting and lobbying firms.
Ms. Nolt did not respond by deadline. But she’s among a handful of journalists who have received special waivers from President Obama’s ethics rules that aim to close the revolving door between government and special interests.
Those rules state that appointees can’t work on specific matters involving former clients and employers for two years unless they receive a waiver. That’s a problem for former journalists who need to talk to the media organizations where they worked.
Ms. Nolt received a waiver from the Education Department so she could communicate with The Associated Press.
Similar waivers have been granted to Paul Franz, former national security editor at The Washington Post who took a job as assistant secretary for public affairs at the State Department; and Glen Johnson, former online politics editor at The Boston Globe, who went from covering Sen. John F. Kerry to working for him as a senior adviser at the State Department.