Barack Obama sure does like that walk down the red carpet. To get to the East Room in the White House, where the president gave his speech last night, you can duck left after walking through the North entrance, or you can step out of the Diplomatic Reception Room and walk down the Cross Hall, framed by columns, gilt chairs, and that carpet (here’s a map). A president sitting at his desk in the Oval Office is watching for the light on the camera to flash red, indicating that you are watching. He has been waiting for you. A president who walks down the Cross Hall chooses his entrance and makes you watch it. You are waiting on him.
Before the Diplomatic Reception Room had its present purpose, the room was where FDR gave his radio addresses. He had done something similar as governor of New York, but before his second such speech from the White House, a journalist at the Columbia Broadcasting System’s D.C. bureau introduced it as a “fireside chat.” Roosevelt did not dispute the name. Even for a president, the medium is the message. An “address” would have just been words from a wooden cabinet in the parlor.
Dwight Eisenhower gave the first televised speech from the Oval Office in 1957. It’s worth watching the first two minutes of a video of the speech to see how unfamiliar the format was at the time. Before he could talk about sending troops to Little Rock to enforce school desegregation, he had to explain that he was in his office. He had been staying in Rhode Island but felt that “in speaking from the house of Lincoln, of Jackson, of Wilson, my words would better convey both the sadness I feel today in the actions I feel compelled to make, and the firmness with which I intend to pursue this course.”
That style remained the standard for grave news; such a speech became known within the White House as an “Oval Office.” In a 2010 article for Congress & the Presidency, Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, who teaches political science at the University of North Texas, argued that presidents give these speeches when there’s bad news that they have some control over. That is, a president is not likely to give an Oval Office to say “the economy stinks” but rather, “the economy stinks, and I have asked Congress to unstink it.” A speech from the White House says, “I know you’re freaked out. But here I am in my office, doing something about it.”
George W. Bush liked set pieces—on an aircraft carrier, in Jackson Square in the French Quarter of New Orleans—but to announce the troop surge in Iraq at the end of 2005, he returned to the same stage Eisenhower had used. As with other presidents, he was flanked by pictures of his family on a credenza behind him—it’s kind of hard to tell, but there on the right, it looks like Jenna’s graduation from the University of Texas. The pictures are not facing him; they are facing you. My office is just like yours, they say. Also, I have the Marines.
Where Bush had two pictures, Barack Obama has kept five. Obama gave his first Oval Office address in June of 2010, after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Here I am in my office, doing something about it, the stagecraft signaled. To my left, note the black and white portrait from my wedding to Michelle. Obama broadcast from the Oval Office again in 2010, to announce a withdrawal of troops from Iraq.
But since then, he has preferred the East Room. Well, not the East Room, exactly, but the door to the East Room, framed by the hall. This is how he announced the death of Osama bin Laden, and then a reduction of troop levels in Afghanistan. And again last night on Syria. The East Room doorway setup looks like a press conference, and it has been used for that purpose in the past. The president is mic’d not at his chest, but at the podium; you get room tone, the echo of the hall. It looks and sounds like an open forum, a public appearance. Only there is no public.
Each time, the format is the same. Walk down the hall. Speak, centered at the vanishing point of the hall, drawing the viewer toward the center of the frame. Turn around, walk away. I am the president. You wait for me. I have said all I have to say, and now I am walking away. This is not my work. My work is back there. And I gotta get back to work.
Obama likely prefers the door to the East Room because he likes to stand. And because he likes to gesture, a choreography that’s difficult to pull off behind the battleship desk of the Oval Office. But it’s also possible that the Oval Office, which was set on fire this summer in two major studio movies, no longer summons for us the House of Lincoln. It is just as much the House of Sorkin now.