Obama’s media blitz: Style over substance?

I fully expect the next "Law and Order" or "CSI" or "24" episode to feature an embattled president racing against time trying to boost national economic confidence. It will star, as himself, Barack Obama.

Then, we’ll see Obama singing on "American Idol," twirling on "Dancing With the Stars" and dissecting the American psyche while sitting on Oprah’s sofa.

In his unprecedented virtual town hall meeting on whitehouse.gov, Obama strode around the East Room totally at home with his microphone while batting softball questions (what about the nurses, what about the jobless and what about the next generation). A total of 92,925 people submitted questions of the what-are-you-going-to-do-about-education ilk two days after he held a news conference in the same room. They were the same questions desperate Americans asked Obama on the campaign trail.

His goal for this 24/7 media blitz? Reach every American with his message that we must teach our children to compete in high-skills jobs, provide health insurance for everyone, work toward energy independence and, most of all, persuade those recalcitrant Republicans and renegade Democrats in Congress to pass his $3.7 trillion budget.

It’s impossible to keep up with the financial twists and turns of this all-consuming recession. The up-again, down-again stock market does not make sense. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is either an all-but-fired nincompoop or a rising star with a head on his shoulders.

Our rage against AIG bonuses is either attributable to inchoate mob rage or reasoned reaction to incomprehensible greed. Capitalism is either dead or just taking a break. Obama is either recklessly spending money we don’t have (and never will have) or is carefully preparing the nation’s infrastructure for the future. More tax cuts are either essential or good money after bad.

The new GOP budget plan is — surprise, surprise — a return to the myopic Bush era of more tax cuts for the rich and more spending on defense and less on everything else.

If there was one overarching message out of Obama’s online town hall meeting (aside from the disproportional demand that Obama weigh in on whether legalized marijuana could boost the economy; he said no), it is that he holds no hope that this recession will end this year. Even if the picture is brightening, job creation and housing starts wont begin in earnest for many, many months.

Low-skill, low-wage jobs that went overseas will not come back, he candidly told a woman from Georgia. And they shouldn’t, he went on, because there will always be countries that pay less than America’s minimum wage, and Americans can’t live in this society on those wages, not even in the tent cities that are starting to spring up in warmer regions. The solution is to improve our schools so that our students are once again the most competent, most productive workers on earth.

(The issue of the productivity of millions of employees using their office computers during work hours to watch Obama was not addressed.)

Persistence, education and hard work are the virtues we should be striving for, he keeps saying.

That’s not bad advice for tumultuous times. But what that also means is that there is no silver bullet for our economic woes (and, despite what he says, his budget is not a one-size-fits-all panacea). Without jobs, all the other goodies are beyond our grasp.

We are almost certainly on the cusp of a new, back-to-our-roots economy where it’s individual hard work, imagination and innovation that each family and each small business must have to survive.

In other words, everything old is new again, and Obama is our new Dr. Phil, our new Benjamin Franklin, our new FDR; our new Pied Piper.

But, in the end, it will be up to us to put the pieces together again. And, that, too, is Obama’s 24/7 message: We’ve done it before; we can do it again. It’s all about hard work and confidence.

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)