Why No Presidential Press Conferences?
Barack Obama promised as a candidate that he would have the "most open and transparent administration in American history". But I guess "openness and transparency" do not extend to press conferences since the last one Obama held was 10 months ago in July, 2009.
That’s right. Despite huge bailouts of financial institutions and car companies, despite 9.9% unemployment, despite escalation of wars overseas, despite environmental blunders, despite concerns about erosion of constitutional rights, despite huge divisions over immigration policies, Obama hasn’t faced the press in a press conference since last July!
That’s a record, lagging behind even Reagan and Nixon. But maybe it’s because Obama really isn’t very good at answering questions live? Recall that his last presser in July, 2009, centered around the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Gates. Obama made some serious mistakes (especially for someone trained in the law) when he said the Gates case represented racial profiling (it didn’t; a neighbor called the police because she saw two men breaking into Gate’s house) and that the Cambridge police "had acted stupidly." He made those comments without knowing all the facts (a mistake no well-trained lawyer would ever make) and his poll numbers went down as a result of his boneheaded remarks.
How does Obama’s number of press conferences stack up against other prsidents. It turns out that Matthew Dickinson of Middlebury College and some of his colleagues has a chart up and a discussion on this subject.
Bill Clinton held more than 2 press conferences a month, a total of 193 during his two terms in office (2.01 per month). George H.W. Bush held even more, a total of 142 for his four years in office (2.96 per month). George W. Bush held 39 in his first two years of office (the stats only go that far) or 1.62 per month.
We enter new territory with the "open and transparent" Obama administration. Obama has held 5 press conferences in the his first six months in office: AND NONE SINCE THEN.
Professor Dickinson also noticed that Obama was unusually wordy during the pressers he did give:
the one thing that stood out was his ability to filibuster by giving lengthy responses. Particularly at the start of the Q&A, Obama gave elaborate, lengthy answers to questions. I thought this served two useful purposes: it ate up a lot of time, preventing other reporters from getting questions in. And–with luck–it meant that his core message would be more likely to lead the media coverage of the conference.
What we see then with Obama is not "openness and transparency" so much as message control. This is pointed out in an excellent article by Yale Professor David Bromwich over at Huffingtonpost, "Will Obama Hold Another Press Conference?" While Obama has decreased formal press conferences which he has little control over, he has increased other means of communications at which he can control the message (and the questioners and their questions). Here’s Professor Bromwich:
The latter story offers a revealing comparative figure, supplied by Professor Martha Joynt Kumar of Towson State University, about President Obama’s alternative methods of exposure to reporters and to the public at large. He has had 47 short exchanges with reporters, compared to 147 for George W. Bush in his first year, and 252 for Bill Clinton. But the figures for arranged interviews go the other way: in his first year Obama gave 161 interviews, compared to 50 for Bush and 53 for Clinton.
Even these statistics fail to convey an adequate impression of the Obama "television blitz" last fall, and his extensive use of the town-hall format. As Travers puts it: "Five Sunday morning political show interviews, breaking down NASCAR and college basketball on ESPN, dropping by David Letterman’s show and appearing in a promo for a new television show featuring comedian George Lopez, it seemed as though the president was on every channel talking about everything under the sun." But did this also somehow weaken the impression of the gravity of his office? It certainly indicated a confused embrace of a multiplicity of roles. Ombudsman, publicist, cheerleader, private friend and cher ami–all are excellent things to be, but you cannot be them all and be the president, too. Or, not in such a way that people will see you as all these things, and also want to see you as their president.
The town-hall format, as everyone knows, lends itself to tight control of both the questions AND the audience. It makes plants possible. Remember the Obama trip to Ohio with Dennis Kucinich when DK was opposing the president’s health care proposals as a sellout to big insurance companies. It just so "happened" that a heckler, recognized by Obama from the platform, urged Kucinich to get behind the president’s program, a call repeated from the microphone by Obama. Now, that is control of message, questioner, and a likely opponent.
Bromwich, as a professor from Yale would, ends his essay with some powerful comments:
At a recent session with reporters, Robert Gibbs was asked about the future of press conferences. He replied with a gambit. You accuse us of overexposure, and now you want press conferences. A crafty evasion and Gibbs pursued it a step by asking for a show of hands: how many reporters really wanted another press conference? But the vote went against him; they did, indeed, want the chance to ask the president questions of their choosing, and with a range of topics open.
The truth may be that for all the burdens and all the embarrassments of an honest press conference, Barack Obama called it quits too soon. The White House press corps is doubtless dull, pusillanimous, self-important and endlessly compromised, but even at its worst, the knowledge it can marshal, over a long sequence of questions, exceeds the information Robert Gibbs is willing to supply. The baffled citizen at a town-hall meeting who begs for the personal concern of the president is no match for the great Helen Thomas. The fact that she does not need him makes all the difference. So does her training in the acquisition and deployment of inconvenient facts. A president who wants to be regarded as both democratic and representative has in one sense no better medium than this.
But I guess that maybe the real reason Obama doesn’t want to face the press in an open exchange is that he might face questions like this:
1) Mr. President, didn’t you on April 2, 2010, 18 days before the BP oil disaster, assure the nation that oil rigs don’t leak, that they’re safe nowadays, and that most spills occur from oil refineries? Wasn’t your reversal of 27 years of government policy banning off shore drilling, a ban endorsed by Democrats and Republicans alike, a real mistake?
2) Why DID you select Ken Salazar as your Secretary of Interior and wasn’t it well known that he was an offshore drilling proponent way back? Why does he still have a job in your administration; in fact, didn’t you ask him to oversee this mess which in large part he created?
3) Mr. President, you seem to be the largest recipient of campaign contributions from both BP and from Goldman Sachs. Some people accuse your administration of coddling both corporations. Could your receipt of millions of dollars in campaign contributions have affected the way your administration has treated both corporations with kid’s gloves?
4) Mr. President, didn’t you promise to close Gitmo? What’s the timetable for that happening now?
5) Mr. President, you and your administration are claiming you have the right to authorize the assassination of U.S. citizens abroad. As a former constitutional law adjunct professor, could you tell us where exactly that power comes from legally and why is it that no American president in the 230 or so years since the country has been founded ever made such a claim before? Do you claim the power to assassinate American citizens living within the United States too?
And so on.
The Middlebury College professor cited above, Matthew Dickinson, runs a fascinating blog that deserves more attention. It’s called "Presidential Power" and is described as a "nonpartisan analysis of presidential politics". Lots of good stuff over there. Here’s more on how the good professor views the role of his blog:
This blog focuses on presidential elections and politics and is oriented primarily toward anyone interested in understanding how we choose presidents and how the presidency works. It grew out of emails I initially distributed to my Middlebury College students at the start of the 2008 (actually 2007) presidential nominating season. My objective was to provide my students with a running commentary on the campaign, but from the perspective of political science. What could political science research tell them about the campaign events that the media couldn’t (or wouldn’t) say? By providing more in-depth analysis rooted in political science research and with a broader historical perspective, I hoped to provide a better understanding of the election. In my commentary I tried to avoid presenting my opinion as fact and instead readily acknowledged when my interpretation was as much conjecture as it was derived from solid research. That remains my goal today.