The Dwindling Press Conference

Barack Obama will hold his second major press conference tonight. It is scheduled for 8 p.m. and should be televised live. (I will try to live blog – please join in with your comments if you’d like – it’s always more fun that way!) As indicated by the chart below (note that this only compares presidents that succeeded a president of the opposing party), through the first two months of his presidency, Obama has held fewer major news conferences than any of his modern predecessors in this cohort (he’s currently tied with Bush II at one).  In an earlier post (see here) I showed data documenting the decline in all presidential press conferences beginning in the 1960’s and offered an explanation for why presidents find these exercises increasingly less useful.  It is no surprise, then, that Obama has shown no inclination to reverse this trend.


Instead, like his predecessors dating back to Richard Nixon, Obama has sought to bypass the mainstream media by taking his message directly to the people. One way he has done so is by continuing a tradition started by Reagan in which presidents give a short weekly address directly to the public.  But whereas Reagan’s address was on radio only, Obama – taking advantage of changing technology – gives his address via a multimedia format that includes video.  (If you haven’t seen this, here‘s the link to the first one he gave while still president elect – see here.  You can go to the White House website to see archived versions of all his weekly addresses – see: ).   The idea behind this strategy is to get Obama’s message across, unfiltered by media interpretation.  What’s interesting is to see how Obama utilizes the latest technology to do so.  Of course, he’s not the first president to try to harness new communication technology to mobilize public support for his policy initiatives. Although our own Calvin Coolidge gave the first presidential radio address, it was FDR, through his celebrated “fireside chats”, who really brought radio to the fore as a means of communicating directly with the people. Similarly, JFK was the first president to capitalize on the growth of television by instituting live televised press conferences.  Nonetheless, both FDR and JFK continued to meet in direct give-and-take with journalists by holding relatively frequent press conferences.  Obama, in contrast, took the third longest of all the post-FDR presidents to hold his first press conference (again only comparing presidents that came to power following a predecessor of the opposite party – only Eisenhower and George W. Bush took longer).   At the same time, however, with his appearance on the Leno show, Obama becomes the first president to appear on a nightly entertainment talk show.

It is perfectly understandable why presidents are increasingly reluctant to undergo a public interrogation by news journalists who often seem more interested in playing “gotcha” politics and getting face time than in engaging in a reasoned dialogue with the president.  The culprit is not modern journalists so much as the modern televised press conference.  As I’ve said before, it simply does not serve a very useful purpose because it does not allow for the nuanced in depth give-and-take that characterized the older “closed” press conference used by FDR and the print journalists.  Far better to swap jokes with Jay Leno than endure a five-part question, with followup, from David Gregory.  Unless, of course, your joke offends an entire group of people! (And I don’t mean bowlers…)

Technology marches on, and presidents are forever trying to use it to their advantage. This is understandable. But it is not clear that we, the people, are always the better for it.

With that in mind, here are some things to look for in tonight’s conference.  Who – after he recognizes the obligatory major networks – does Obama call on for questions?  In his first press conference he made a bit of history by calling on a representative of the “netroots” (a “journalist” from the HuffingtonPost).  Look for him to reprise that strategy today – these people are so grateful to be recognized that they usually send up softball questions.  Second, see if he’s learned to shorten his answers – he had a tendency during the first conference to respond with rather detailed, lengthy answers that did not always play well in that particular medium. Third, look for the “planted” questions – presidents will frequently strike deals with “second tier” media representatives in which they agree to call on them in exchange for feeding a question topic.  Fourth, see whether the mainstream media can catch Obama unaware by asking a question for which he has not prepared.  It’s always a cat-and-mouse game in this regard, with presidents spending the day wargaming likely questions and journalists trying to develop just the right wording so that the president cannot wiggle out with a non- or evasive answer.

The bulk of the conference should deal with Treasury Secretary Geithner, the bank rescue plan, the economy, the 2009-10 budget negotiations with Congress, the use of reconciliation procedures and probably a foreign policy question re: Iraq’s seeming rebuff of Obama’s overture to that country and/or something about Afghanistan.

For humor, I expect at least one question dealing with Obama’s NCAA picks…See you at 8 …..


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