I want to make a couple brief follow up observations to last night’s press conference, piggybacking on some of your comments. Let me issue a warning, however – what follows is closer to punditry than political science, so take it with the requisite container of sodium chloride. Let’s call what follows a “pundication” rather than an application of political science.
As Tarsi correctly points out, it’s difficult to engage in an in-depth discussion of policy issues in the televised press conference, and I apologize if my criticisms last night suggested otherwise. Nonetheless, there is an art to asking questions in a way that forces presidents to address inconsistencies or tensions in their policy agenda and related pronouncements. I didn’t see very much of this last night – the initial questions were too vague, and the follow up didn’t really press Obama. He was largely allowed to dictate the agenda – no one asked about the most difficult issues on his plate, particularly in foreign policy (why he is essentially adopting Bush’s legal policy on detaining enemy combatants, or what is the strategy in Afghanistan, for instance.) But even on economic issues, with the conspicuous exception of Chip Reid, no one really pressed him on the assumptions underlying his budget policies, and no one, to my knowledge, asked about the bank bailout bill just announced by Geithner, which is really the issue du jour (although banks were touched on peripherally in some of the questions.)
In thinking about why this might be the case, I came up with one idea which I throw out for your consideration: Obama selected a slightly more diverse and less experienced pool of interviewers than has been the case under previous administrations.
Consider the following: not one of the correspondents asking questions came from a major newspaper – the NY Times, Washington Post, Wall St. Journal, etc. – although the Washington Times did get a question in. And among the major network television correspondents, Chuck Todd is still a work in progress (as indicated by his inexplicable question regarding why Obama didn’t ask Americans to “sacrifice” in a time of economic downturn!) But while Obama did call on some of the usual suspects (Loven at AP, Tapper at ABC, Reid at NBC, Henry from CNN, Major Garrett at Fox) he also took questions from reporters representing Stars and Stripes, Univision, Politico (although Mike Allen is experienced), Ebony and the French News Service. I am not claiming that these journalists are less qualified. But they represent more specialized audiences, and their questions largely reflected the primary interests of those audiences. There is nothing wrong with this – indeed, one wouldn’t expect otherwise. But it meant that Obama was less likely to be grilled on the more central issues facing his administration. At the same time, it increased the likelihood that news stories would lead with his opening statement as the dominant theme to take from press conference, rather than seeing that message get stepped on by an enterprising reporter’s question.
For comparison purposes, I went back to look at who asked questions, and what they asked, during George W. Bush’s second press conference (Bush held his on March 29, 2001 – almost 8 years ago to the day – you can review the transcript here ). The questioners are not always easily identified in the transcript from that conference, but Bush took questions from the AP, Hearst Papers (the inestimable Helen Thomas), Washington Post (Mike Allen), CNN, ABC (Terry Moran), CBS (John Roberts) and NBC (David Gregory). There is a huge amount of Washington, DC, experience in these people. Now, to be fair, I really need to do a more detailed comparison of the backgrounds of these reporters – what I’m arguing here is more impressionistic than I’d like. But I throw it out for you consideration….
Bush’s press conference differed in other ways as well. It took place in the morning rather than in prime time and, as you might expect, he dealt primarily (although not entirely) with a different set of topics than what was discussed last night. His opening statement was brief, and focused on recent violence in the Mideast (some topics never change!) Three of the subsequent questions dealt with the economy, which was showing clear signs of slowing, and whether Bush’s proposed tax cuts were too small to stimulate the economy, or too big and thus likely to produce budget deficits (this was at a time when the government was running a budget surplus, believe it or not!). In addition to the economy, the reporters also asked about the following topics: how to handle the recent escalation of violence in the Middle East – would he meet with PLO leader Arafat? (Bush reiterated his belief that the U.S. could not force a peace settlement in the Mideast, and that peace would take both sides coming to the table – eventually the U.S. pursued a policy of marginalizing Arafat); whether he would sign campaign finance reform bill outlawing soft money contributions (he was noncommittal, but he eventually did); whether he supported drilling in the ANWR (he did, but never got it passed Congress); his decision to rescind the Clinton administration’s ruling lowering acceptable arsenic levels in water (he said he wanted to make the decision based on science, not politics); whether he got along with John McCain (he respected him, even if they disagreed on some issues); whether we needed a missile defense (Bush said yes, given the very real threat of a terrorist attack on the nation); how he would change international opinion which seemed very much against the U.S. (note that this was BEFORE 9/11 and the Iraq war!); and whether he supported a free trade agreement in the western hemisphere (he looked forward to speaking with South American leaders about this issue.)
Generally, the questions were a bit more pointed and the follow ups more direct than what we heard last night. On the other hand, the tone of Bush’s press conference was much more relaxed, with Bush and the reporters engaging in gentle banter (Bush and David Gregory in particular going at it). That sure changed, didn’t it? And Bush called only on major, mainstream print and television journalists – there were no internet correspondents.
I should add that I think there are sound reasons why Obama might prefer a more diverse set of questioners, and why we, as a viewing audience, also benefit from hearing a slightly different set of issues addressed. But I also wonder if it affected the substance, and even the quality, of the questions he received… thoughts?
By the way, Jack Goodman (via Chuck Todd) provides an explanation for the clear discomfort I noted last night with Obama as he read his opening statement from the teleprompter – see Jack’s comments from the previous post.