President Obama is scheduled to hold a news conference today beginning at 12:45 p.m. – about an hour from now. By my count, it will be his first full-fledged conference since July 22, 2009 – just over 10 months – when he infamously said that officers from the Cambridge Police Department acted “stupidly” when they arrested Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his own home. Obama later backed off from that statement, and subsequently held the famous ‘beer summit” at the White House with Gates and the arresting officer. But he has never held another formal press conference until today. In the interim, he has carefully managed his interactions with the press by either relying on smaller, less formal interactions, handing exclusives to favored journalists (particularly favoring, according to critics, the New York Times) or bypassing the media directly and speaking directly to the public.
Although I would not have predicted he would go this long between formal press conferences, the fact that he has tried to avoid them should come as no surprise. Even before the ‘Gates-gate”, I had predicted that Obama’s promise of a more “transparent” administration would, in the area of press relations, fall prey to the realities of the modern, televised press conference. That is, Obama would realize what previous presidents invariably learned: from the president’s perspective, the televised press conference serves no useful purpose. In theory, of course, the press conference is an opportunity for the media to hold the president accountable for his actions to date, and for the President to explain those actions. In practice, neither of those objectives tends to be met. Given the constraints under which they operate – reporters must be called on by the president, and they have no time for follow-up questions to probe answers in depth – journalists too often feel pressured to ask The One Question that will elicit a controversial and thus newsworthy response. Presidents, anticipating this, become adept at eating up time with long opening statements and by answering questions with the equivalent of the Senate filibuster, or by “suggesting” questions in advance to favored reporters.
In a previous post discussing the history of presidential press conferences I have suggested a way to reform the press conference so that it addresses the interests of both reporters and presidents – and thus the public. In the meantime, however, Obama’s failure to hold press conferences has led to no little grumbling from the media who accuse him of treating the press with contempt. Several of them, citing my previous post, have castigated Obama for his failure to meet regularly with the press (see, for example, here and here.) Most recently, Chuck Todd complained of Obama’s “disdain” for the press.
Rather than disdain, I would argue that Obama is motivated by the same feelings that led previous presidents to shy away from formal press conferences: political self-interest. If so, what has prompted Obama to finally hold another press conference today? Two words: Oil Spill. As I’ve discussed in my last two posts, the growing public backlash, spearheaded by officials from both parties, to the allegedly slow response by the federal government to the spill is threatening to have Katrina-like implications for Obama’s presidency. Obama has evidently calculated that the risk of losing control of the oil spill narrative (see here and here and here) outweighs the risks inherent in holding a press conference. Look for him to start the conference off with a lengthy statement detailing everything the government has done, and will do – such as tightening regulations governing drilling, extending a moratorium on off-shore drilling and making organizational changes to the agency responsible for issuing drilling permits – before taking questions. He will likely stress two themes in his answers: it’s BP’s fault, and the government will hold them accountable. Journalists, meanwhile, should try to get him on the record to respond to the charges leveled by Governor Jindal and others about the bureaucratic obstacles that have prevented local and state authorities from placing booms and using dredging to prevent the oil spills from endangering delicate coastal areas. Note as well the tone of the questions – has Obama’s reluctance to meet directly with the press in these types of exchanges turned journalists against him?
My big fear, however, is that journalists will chase the wrong rabbit – that they will spend much of this conference pressing Obama on relatively minor issues, such as the alleged attempt to clear the field for Arlen Specter by offering Joe Sestak a government job. Explaining the intricacies of government organizations, which is at the heart of the government’s slow response to this spill, is an inherently unsexy task and one not easily done in the context of a televised Q&A. And yet the performance of these agencies – the Coast Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Interior Department – is of far more consequence to the public interest than is the Sestak issue.
The conference is in an hour. You can watch a live feed at the White House website. I’ll try to follow up with a post-conference post.
P.S. You should be able to watch a live feed of the press conference at the White House link: http://www.whitehouse.gov/live
I’m tempted to live blog this because it may be the last press conference before the midterms!
P.S.S. I think I can get the live feed from the White House here at:
so I’ll try to live blog. I realize it’s last moment, but join in if you want.