In December, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney declared that ensuring "middle-class Americans don't have their taxes go up on January 1st" was the president's "number one priority." Perhaps it was, but what Carney failed to mention was that it was just one of up to 12 "number one priorities" declared by the president since taking office - many of them often conflicting or overlapping.
That's certainly not the media spin on every one of those "number one priority" items either. Network journalists have either mentioned or quoted Obama having a "number one priority" 26 times since he took office - from the economy, to healthcare, to national security. Not once have they pointed out that he often has multiple such priorities at the same time. In, fact, in his three years as president, ABC, CBS and NBC have only mentioned five of the 12 "number one priorities." And only the economy was mentioned by all three networks.
Obama started off 2010 with a bold statement about the state of the economy. "One in 10 Americans still can't find work. That's why creating jobs has to be our number one priority in 2010." Network journalists dutifully repeated the claim, citing it as the president's top priority 50 percent of the times (13 out of 26) times they discussed them. ABC mentioned it seven times.
In February, 2010, Obama reminded everyone that jobs had been in number one priority in 2009, not 2010. Responding to CBS anchor Katie Couric's question about whether he wished he had waited on healthcare reform, Obama said: "No, because keep in mind jobs were my number one priority last year."
Of course, shortly before that, on Jan. 26, he told ABC's "Good Morning America" something slightly different. "Here's what I said, was that our number one priority was stopping the economic contraction." Obama went on to discuss jobs, but as a secondary item.
Less than two weeks before that, on Jan. 14, NBC's Matt Lauer told viewers that the Haitian earthquake filled that role. Speaking to NBC anchor Brian Williams, he added, "And, Brian, the president reiterated that the number one priority is getting out there and saving lives and getting supplies and medical assistance to people in need."
But jobs were still at the top of Obama's plans in 2011, according to ABC's David Wright. "At the White House, creating jobs is now the number one priority because the president knows keeping his job may depend on it," he told viewers Aug. 31.
But if jobs had been a "number one priority" all along, it wasn't alone. When Osama bin Laden was finally tracked down, that too became a "number one priority" … for 2009 and every day since. Vice President Joe Biden spoke to the troops at Fort Campbell, Ky., on May 6, 2011 about bin Laden. He told them Obama "decided, when he got into office, because of the fight you all were in from the beginning, that the number one priority was to get Osama bin Laden."
So that "number one priority" lasted from Jan. 20, 2009, to May, 2011. In that time, it conflicted with eight other similar "number one" administration priorities from responding to the BP oil spill to "thinking about you and your families each and every day."
Not only did Obama's "number one priorities" often conflict or overlap, but what journalists claimed were the priorities were different still. On Dec. 6, 2009, when jobs, the economy and jobs, or Osama bin Laden were supposedly the priority, New York magazine's John Heilman told Chris Matthews it was healthcare reform. Matthews asked Heilmann, "What's his number one priority right now?" Heilmann was clear: "Well, I think if health care fails, his presidency in ruins."
He wasn't alone. ABC's George Stephanopoulos made the same claim when speaking about healthcare to Sen. Kent Conrad, D-ND, saying, "both you and President Obama have really said that the number one priority has to be to get costs under control."
Sometimes, those priorities just get entirely confusing. In one Jan. 5, 2012, press conference, Press Secretary Jay Carney mentioned two separate "number one priorities" within a few minutes. Those included the amorphous idea of facing challenges head on and the more typical "doing everything he can within his power to help the American people, to grow the economy and to create jobs."
Obama nears the end of his first term as president having averaged four "number one priorities" each year.