Tag Archives: press conference

One Man’s Press Conference Question is Another Man’s… .

Olivier’s very useful follow-up post (see his comment here) on the issue of journalists’ questions at presidential press conferences, coupled with the earlier comment from my colleague Murray Dry, are reminders (as if you needed it!) that there is plenty of room for disagreement (and learning) on this blog, particularly when discussing topics that, for whatever reasons, have not been the subject of much prior political science research.  For those coming late to the conversation, both Murray and Olivier questioned my criticism of Jeff Zeleny’s four-part question to Obama at the most recent presidential press conference. I thought the question elicited nothing particularly useful about either the administration’s recent policies or about Obama’s presidency – or Obama – more generally.  More importantly, I didn’t think the question had much probability of doing so.  Murray disagreed, saying he found Zeleny’s question the most interesting one asked at the conference. Building on this, Olivier reminds that we often judge the efficacy of a particular question by the response it elicits.  Journalists going into a press conference, however, don’t have the luxury of hindsight; under a great deal of uncertainty, they must use their best judgment regarding how best to use their precious opportunity to ask one of the perhaps dozen questions a president may answer in a typical one hour news conference.  No one can be entirely sure what question will prove newsworthy and which – as his anecdote about April Ryan’s question to Bush regarding the role of faith in his decision illustrates – will be treated with the scorn I heaped on Zeleny’s question.

Olivier and Murray raised valid criticisms.  Deciding what to ask a president at a conference is more art than science, and ought to be assessed accordingly, particularly since one can’t be sure how a president will respond and because people react differently to whatever response occurs.  I will say that as Zeleny was asking his question – but before Obama gave his answer – I turned to my wife and muttered something about what a complete waste of a question this was. So my initial judgment did not depend on Obama’s answer.  In retrospect, I still think there were many more questions that Zeleny might have asked that had a higher probability of eliciting a more newsworthy – however one judges newsworthy – response.  But I passed judgment from the comfort of my easy chair, glass of scotch in hand – it was Zeleny who actually had to come up with a question, working with a great deal of uncertainty and under the media spotlight. As Olivier suggests, it’s easy for me to play post-press conference quarterback.  And as Murray’s comment suggests, many people thought Zeleny asked the most interesting question.  For what it’s worth, the post-conference reaction among the punditocracy revealed a similar mix of sentiments, with Zeleny both praised and ridiculed.

There are two broader lessons here.  As I noted in my initial post, press conferences serve different purposes for presidents, journalists and the public.  Not surprisingly given these different objectives, reactions to both questions and answers are likely to vary across and even among audiences/participants.  One man’s incisive query is another’s wasted opportunity.  Second, on many issues discussed here, there isn’t much in the way of “science” on which to base assessments – evaluating press conferences is more akin to judging movies. (The most recent Star Trek reboot is excellent, by the way.)  Although my primary purpose with this blog is to use political science research to discuss current events as they relate to the presidency, I’m not unwilling to cross the line and present my own personal pundicating on topics of interest about which there may be little prior research.  I’m confident that you can separate reasoned opinion from more rigorous analysis and – when you disagree – are willing to offer up a countervailing opinion.  That’s what this blog is all about and what – I hope – separates it from many of the other blogs you might read.  We are trying to educate and learn, not create still another echo chamber where likeminded people can reinforce one another’s prior convictions.

(And I don’t really believe Zeleny should be banned from all future press conferences. Although a period of probation may be in order.)

Ok. End of sermon.

In a comment on my last post, Gary Roosa points out a recent Newsweek article examining Obama’s use of staff – a topic about which I’m writing my latest book.   I’ll have more to say about this topic in later posts, but I think the article is useful in pointing out the basic tradeoff all presidents make when recruiting and organizing staffs: finding the balance between conserving the president’s time versus maximizing his exposure to information and competing viewpoints.  Every president struggles to design a staff organization that does both – unfortunately, efforts to optimize one invariably diminish the other.  I’ll have much more to write about this.

And if you get a chance, take a peek at the NY Times article re: unease among House Democrats about the process by which the House is putting together a health insurance bill.  As the following passage suggests, it is a nice illustration of the difference in lawmaking processes in the House and the Senate: “The Blue Dogs said the policy-making process in the House compared unfavorably with the approach in the Senate, where two committees have held open forums and the chairman of the Finance Committee, a Democrat, is working with the panel’s senior Republican.

In the letter, Blue Dogs representing districts in states as varied as Maine, California, Pennsylvania and Alabama lamented that “our contributions, to date, have been limited.” They praised “the collaborative approach being taken by our Senate colleagues.”

Just another reminder that the House is run by the majority party leadership, while no one really runs the Senate.

Viewer Mail: Murray Dry, Specter and the Future of the Party System

It’s viewer mail time. As most of you know, ever since this blog went on the air in the late 1950’s I’ve periodically taken the opportunity to catch up with your comments and questions, which are often more illuminating than the blogs to which they refer.  Let me begin by noting my colleague Murray Dry’s mild objection to my criticism of New York Time’s reporter Jeff Zeleny’s question at Obama’s last press conference.  In case you missed it, Zeleny asked Obama, “During these first 100 days, what has surprised you the most about this office, enchanted you the most about serving this in office, humbled you the most and troubled you the most?”  Obama responded in a half-humorous, half serious manner, dutiful responding to each of Zeleny’s four miniquestions. My initial reaction was that the question was a perfectly good waste of a precious opportunity. Far better that someone had pushed Obama on torture, or Afghanistan, or health care than ask this, “If you were a tree, what kind would you be?” type question.  Upon reflection, however, I think that’s too positive a reaction – the question was worse than that – it was completely asinine and Zeleny should have his press accreditation revoked.

Murray disagrees.  He writes,   “When I first read this I was not sure if you were referring to the question I thought you were, which, I confess was the one that most interested me. Now I know that it was and I want to reply. Zeleny’s was the only question, I believe, that elicited a spontaneous reply and I found that both refreshing and informative.  Assuming that we do not disagree on that, I am guessing that your interest in the press conference is more like that of an umpire in a chess match: what moves are put on the President and how ably does he reply, which is to say, how effectively does he manage to “stay on message” without necessarily telling us anything new. Is that about it?”

I understand and empathize with Murray’s reaction.  Like all professors, we appreciate, I think, “students” (especially former Harvard Law students!) who demonstrate that they can think on their feet when thrown a curveball.  It’s how we test our grad students, or senior honors candidates, during their oral defense.  I confess, however, that I don’t think there’s much correlation between being able to react to an off-script question and being an effective president.  Indeed, I am tempted to argue that if there is a relationship, it is inverse – those presidents who demonstrate a type of “lawyer’s skill” at thinking quickly on one’s feet and who can score debating points or engage in skillful repartee at press conferences often make the worst presidents. The reason is because they approach decisionmaking, and leadership more generally, as if it is a logic problem that can be solved through sheer intellect. More generally, I worry that academics (and I’m not pointing the finger at Murray here) generally focus on the wrong attributes in assessing presidents – we should care less about verbal reasoning and SAT scores, and more about political instincts, prior experiences and deeply-held values – none of which would be exposed by Zeleny’s question. I’m speculating in the absence of clear-cut data, of course. My more immediate reason for criticizing Zeleny’s question is that press conferences are most useful if they force presidents to explain policy decisions.  It’s not supposed to be an oral exam (if you can even call Zeleny’s softball question an “exam”.)  Students who do well on their oral exams should become professors – not presidents.

When the Arlen Specter story first broke, Jack Goodman wondered about a Ridge-Specter matchup.  I speculated that Ridge would be a tough opponent for Specter.  We now have two more polls suggesting that is the case.   A Susquehanna automated interactive poll (one in which respondents press numbers on the phone keypads in response to an automated voice) has Ridge beating Specter, 39-38% (within the poll’s margin of error, so essentially a tossup), but Specter beating the more conservative Pat Toomey 42-26%. A Public Opinion Strategy (a Republican polling firm) survey taken at about the same time had similar results; Specter beats Toomey 49-40, but loses to Ridge, 48-41%.

More interesting, perhaps, the POS poll also indicates that Specter would trounce the more liberal Democrat Joe Sestak in the Democratic primary, 57-20% and – somewhat surprisingly, perhaps – Ridge would handily beat conservative Toomey in the Republican primary, 60-23%.  These results provide additional ammunition for my initial claim that Specter’s voting patterns as a Democrat aren’t likely to vary much from when he was a Republican since his primary electoral opposition isn’t likely to come from the Left – it’s from the moderate Right.  The results have also, if news reports are to be believed, encouraged Ridge to consider tossing his hat into the ring.  All this has to make Democrats think they were better off if Specter had remained a Republican, which might have kept Ridge out of the race altogether and opened it up for a true Democrat to defeat Specter in 2010.

Reacting to my blog on changing partisan affiliation among the general public, Andrew suggests that as national politics have become more polarized, people have moved from being weak partisans to self-identifying more as leaning independents – that is, they’ve become less wedded to the parties.  I’ve graphed that movement here.  The upper trend line shows the decline in “weak partisans” and the lower trend line shows the increase in “leaning independents” (I’ve included linear trend lines as well).  The middle line shows the curvilinear trend of the strong partisans, revealing a gradual decline from the high in 1964 to its low point in 1978, where it begins increasing again.

Andy seems to be correct that there’s an inverse relationship between the number of weak partisans and those self identifying as leaning independents, but the relationship seems to predate the gradual increase in strong partisans beginning at the start of the Reagan presidency in 1980.  In other words, weak partisans began switching to leaning independents even before the uptick in the number of strong partisans in the public.  A superficial read would suggest Andy has the causal relationship backward – that as a subset of the public became less wedded to parties, another portion reacted by strengthening their party attachments.  I’m not quite sure what to make of that pattern – thoughts?  Of course, it may be that the two patterns are not related at all.

Finally, if you get a chance take a look at Marty’s very thoughtful comment regarding my previous blog on changing partisan attachments. I want to respond more fully to his warning re: the potential “dark side” to malleable partisan attachments; that parties’ use of fear as a framing strategy can swing support their way.  This is really a fascinating issue that deserves a more complete response.  As a tease, however, let me offer a somewhat different take:  that a significant subset of people doesn’t hold “coherent” ideological views that correspond closely to a single party platform. Instead, they mix and match policy views without regard to ideological consistency.  As a result, they are quite willing to switch party allegiances (and candidates) depending on the issues du jour.  That’s what I tried to suggest when I argued that there is a core of “moderate” Americans who tend to be quite pragmatic in their policy views and moderate in their ideological leanings.

As always, keep those comments coming!  We are here to serve…