ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC all interviewed Obama campaign manager David Plouffe on Thursday morning. The name rhymes with fluff, and fluff consumed most of the interview questions, which focused on convention atmospherics and polls, and not on policy issues. CBS host Harry Smith summarized the trend by saying "Let’s talk about the cosmetics." ABC and CBS competed to see who could be more promotional. Both compared it to a "Super Bowl atmosphere." Smith strangely asked: "Are the Republicans controlling this conversation, the conversation with the American people this week?" NBC’s Matt Lauer, by contrast, threw three comparative hardballs at Plouffe about how the Republicans were mocking the Invesco Field speech and its "Temple of Obama" setting. He said the Republicans say "This is a place where we pay tribute to football stars and rock stars and maybe it shows, once again, this campaign is less about substance and more about the cult of personality." CNN’s John Roberts conducted a brief interview, and corrected Plouffe when he implied more people thought Obama would be a better commander-in-chief.
For the most part, Plouffe was enabled to throw out his programmed talking points about how this event would be open and inspirational and focused on "average Americans." Here’s a network breakdown.
ABC. Co-host Robin Roberts offered no hardballs. Her only note of skepticism was that the unconventional setting was risky. Here are the questions:
– "Senator Obama arrived in Denver shortly before the nomination became official. He was able to see it from his hotel room with his family. What was his reaction?"
– "Tonight here, it's almost like a Super Bowl atmosphere. Is there fear that the message may be lost?" Plouffe replied: "Not at all. We think opening up the convention to average Americans is really important. Next week John McCain will choose to be with his insiders and lobbyists who are running his campaign."
– "You talk about grass roots and people thinking about conventions from years past. You're in a convention hall. The balloons are coming down. There's a certain tradition that we won't have. There's a new tradition that you're starting. Is there a risk in that?"
– "No doubt this is the biggest speech of Barack Obama's life and he has to strike the right balance, enormous amount of pressure that he is under. What do you want to hear from him tonight? What do you want the people to hear from him tonight?"
– "You had an idea probably coming into the convention what you wanted to accomplish. How do you judge how this convention has been received by the American people?"
CBS. Leading into the interview on The Early Show, co-host Maggie Rodriguez cooed: "It looks like they're going to play the Super Bowl of politics there tonight." Smith’s interview with Plouffe began with one question noting the Republican criticism:
SMITH: You certainly have a big task ahead of you this evening. First thing's first, the bad press that has been created by the facade behind us. The Republicans are already calling it the 'Temple of Obama.' They're running ads talking about your candidate as 'the chosen one.' Are the Republicans controlling this conversation, the conversation with the American people this week?
PLOUFFE: Not at all. I think, first of all, this is a big election. The economy's in turmoil, we have threats around the world, the American people fundamentally want a new direction. It's a big election. The Republicans want to take it smaller and smaller every day...
SMITH: Well, let's talk about the cosmetics, at least for a second, though. Because we're looking at, can you explain just what that's supposed to be?
PLOUFFE: Well, it looks a lot like the backdrop President Bush had in 2004. It's a neutral backdrop. This is going to be an amazing sight tonight, you're going to have 80,000 Americans, an open convention, with grassroots people from all over the country waving American flags and celebrating their democracy and leading us to the fall...
SMITH: Let's talk about the speech itself. Hear it is, four years since many Americans first saw Barack Obama, where he swept on to America's consciousness with his amazing speech at the Democratic convention. And it's also the 45th anniversary of 'I Have A Dream.' How do you rhetorically walk that tight rope and communicate the message you were just talking about?
NBC. Today co-host Matt Lauer was the toughest of the network anchors, sticking to the GOP criticisms.
– "Before we talk about what the senator is going to say tonight in his speech, let's talk a little bit about where we are. This football field, Invesco Field at Mile High. And already you're starting to hear some at the McCain campaign and at the RNC say, wait a second. This is a place where we pay tribute to football stars and rock stars and maybe it shows, once again, this campaign is less about substance and more about the cult of personality. How do you respond?" Plouffe said "It’s ridiculous," and went back to the McCain’s-lobbyist-stuffed-campaign line.
– "Let me ask you about symbolism though. What's the deal with the set here? The Greek revival pillars? You know, the McCain campaign or the RNC says it’s the temple of Obama. Are the pillars supposed to remind us of the Lincoln Memorial and the I Have a Dream speech 45 years ago? Is that the idea?"
– "So, in specifics, that's what he's going to talk about? Because you've seen this campaign ad from the John McCain campaign using Hillary Clinton's own words saying, Barack Obama, I'm paraphrasing here, a little more than a speech from 2002. Will he get down to brass tacks tonight?"
Plouffe said yes, there will be substance (unlike most morning-show interviews). Lauer then took a more positive turn in the second half, praising the genius of Plouffe:
LAUER: Not to make you blush, David, you're widely regarded as somewhat of a genius when it comes to the numbers of a campaign, the polls, delegates, things like that. And you've said to the press there are 18 states that we are really concentrating on. Places like Ohio and Pennsylvania and the list goes on. In those states, how would you describe how well the voters there know Barack Obama?
PLOUFFE: I think they know him well. They need to know him better.
LAUER: What don't they know about him?
PLOUFFE: Well, I think a lot of the people who are undecided voters didn't participate in the primary, weren't paying as close attention. So, they're just checking in now. That's why Michelle Obama's speech was so important. That's why Senator Clinton's--
LAUER: In biographical terms or policy terms?
PLOUFFE: I think biographical terms. His accomplishments, his values and then where he wants to take the country....
LAUER: Let me say you the same question in the other direction. In those same 18 states that you have targeted and see as vital, how well do you think voters know John McCain in those states?
PLOUFFE: I think they know his biography better. I think they're going to get to know his agenda better, which is more tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, none for the middle class a health care plan that will erode employer based health care, stay in Iraq and keep spending a billion a month and make abortion illegal in this country.
LAUER: The polls are tight. Over the last couple weeks, they have narrowed. They are tight. You're obviously hoping for a bump to come out of this convention. How worried are you that, A, so much concentration on the Clintons over the last three days and, B, the announcement from John McCain tomorrow morning about his vice presidential candidate will eat into any bump you might get?
CNN. On American Morning, anchor John Roberts only asked three questions (or two questions and a factual challenge):
– "What can we expect tonight here at what some people are calling the Barackopolis with the ancient Greek columns? I have heard that there is going to be some influences from the past, speeches from Bill Clinton, as well as Ronald Reagan, and all the way back to 1960 and John F. Kennedy."
– "Over the last couple of days we have seen Hillary and Bill Clinton slowly lead the stage here at the Democratic National Convention with a big endorsement of Senator Obama last night from the former president. [Shows video clip of Clinton praise.] It was a pretty strong endorsement by anyone's measure last night. But then you still have these lingering comments from earlier in the primary season from him, from Hillary Clinton, that the McCain campaign is trying to use to its advantage. How can you counter that? Particularly when he is so far ahead on these issues of leadership and who would be the better commander in chief."
At least Roberts felt the need to correct Plouffe as he implied people felt Obama would be the better commander-in-chief:
PLOUFFE: And I think for anyone watching, and there has been a lot people watching, there's no question about who they believe would be the stronger commander in chief and the person best to get our economy back on track. And so, we think these three nights have been very important. They couldn't have gone better.
ROBERTS: But when we poll people across the country, the numbers are exactly the opposite of what you say.