President Obama takes the White House to the Midwest
By Jason Reed
600 miles of ice cream stops, cornfields and cow judging contests – a glimpse inside the traveling white house circus.
The scene in Washington DC, 2011 – U.S. debt ceiling negotiations, unemployment figures that wont improve, congressional deadlock – it’s enough to make you want to get out of town. President Barack Obama did just that this week, jumping on a shiny new bus and heading out to the Midwest to spend time with pretty much anyone who wasn’t wearing a business suit.
It was surely a nice change of scenery for Obama and definitely for photographers assigned to the White House who have been fed a steady diet of presidential remarks in front of all the familiar Washington backgrounds for weeks on end. The message was however, the same. Getting the nine per cent of unemployed Americans back to work.
Not since the early campaign days of 2007, when new U.S. Senator Barack Obama burst onto the national scene, have I seen the sort of access that the traveling White House press received in the past several days. With an entire staff dedicated to “advancing the trip”, locations were scouted along the 600 mile route through key election states Minnesota, Iowa and lllinois.
Some would think that the Presidential election is just around the corner but you’d be wrong. In most other democracies around the world an election cycle would last maybe a month. We are still over 530 days away from the November 2012 presidential election, and right here for me President Obama’s re-election campaign has officially begun. Better strap myself in for the ride. It must be by far the longest, most intense election campaign in the world.
Forming up at about 6am each day, a small group of press who are the “travel pool” ride everywhere the President goes – in nondescript vans about halfway from the front of the 40-vehicle motorcade. Along with the scheduled stops at town hall-style meetings, of which we are given advanced notice, come the unannounced “OTRs”, off-the-record events which have been planned by the White House advance staff, sometimes days ahead, but for security purposes are not told to anyone until the motorcade comes to a stop at ice cream shops, high schools, large crowds of onlookers gathered in small towns and other random places.
These are the events we love to cover because they are so random, introduce new people and places, and can produce some great moments that show the President is human, just like the rest of us. The only thing we are told moments before the motorcade comes to a halt is whether the stop will be indoors (coffee shop?)
or outdoors (visiting high school football team?).
So we set the basic exposures on our cameras and get ready. I can’t imagine the surprise locals must feel in their small towns when a bulletproof bus with blacked-out windows rolls up, a bunch of secret service agents pour out of vehicles to scatter in all directions and then about 15-20 members of the press leap out and charge at full speed down the street, over potholes and front lawns, some with at least $10,000 worth of camera equipment, to our target – a popcorn shop, café or a school girls volleyball team. Then for the next 5-10 minutes during the photo opportunity, we all do our best to exclude each other, the secret service agents and white house staff from our backgrounds as we try to frame our pictures that give context to the event.
From an outsiders perspective, as they watch the media tornado tear through their neighborhood, the traveling circus must look like an attempt at herding cats. Back in the van again, barreling down the highway to the next stop, we light up our computers to edit and transmit another round of pictures using the same cell network used by mobile phones. It’s a battle to select the best images and tone them in photoshop as alternating full sunlight then shadow flicker from outside and onto your laptop screen.
Not to mention the attempt at typing a perfectly-worded caption in a van at 60 mph (100 km/h) bouncing all over the road. One colleague from another news outlet had to deal with an email from an editor who said that his caption was missing one comma in his sentence. I think that editor needs a week on the campaign trail to appreciate that he gets any caption at all!
In this game it’s all about staying on your toes, keeping your eyes open and being ready for just about anything. That includes the cow patties at the county fair! Only 530 more days to go.