Is Obama So Bad at Impromptu Remarks that he Can't Handle More News Conferences?





Mr. Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network.

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After Nixon and Reagan, who averaged about one news conference every two months, or about a dozen total in their first two years, liberals panted for a president who would meet the national press on a regular and timely schedule to discuss issues.  They finally got one who did:  George Herbert Walker Bush.  In his first two years in office Bush held a stunning sixty-two formal news conferences—nearly three a month. 

The revival of the nationally televised news conference continued under Bill Clinton, who in his first two years in office held a stunning seventy-two by one count.   (By another count he held twenty-nine.  Counting news conferences is tricky.  Do you include the joint news conference featuring the president and a foreign leader, an innovation of the Bush I White House, or just solo news conferences?  Do news conferences that take place in the morning when fewer viewers are likely to watch rank equally with those that occur during prime time?  Scholars actually debate these sorts of issues.) 

But after Bush I and Clinton came George W. Bush, and the brief revival of the televised news conference was over.  This was, liberals told themselves, because George W. Bush’s gifts as a communicator in chief were, shall we say, limited.  He may have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth but not, alas, with a silver tongue.  He held just seven news conferences total during his first two years in office and not many more thereafter. This, as we all remember, was one of the long list of serious grievances liberals held against him.

So how’s Barack Obama, the liberal’s great hope, doing?  Ahem.  Not so well.  In his first two years in office he held just twenty news conferences and that’s using a loose standard.  By the rigorous count of CBS’s Mark Knoller Obama held just eleven. For one stretch he went ten long months without a formal news conference, as a blogger complained on the Huffington Post.  Thus far this year he’s held just three, one in February, another in March and the other at the end of June. 

Maybe liberals have put too much stock in the usefulness of the news conference.  You can make the case that there’s little to no connection between the success presidents enjoy and the number of news conferences they hold.  After all the president who held more news conferences than any other, month in and month out,  was the mediocrity and misnamed "Silent Cal" Coolidge.  And Bush I’s presidency isn’t remembered by many as terribly impressive.  Reagan’s, on the contrary is, and Reagan holds the record with Nixon for the fewest press conferences of any president since Woodrow Wilson, who began the practice.

To be sure, Obama meets with reporters all the time.  He’s broken presidential records in the number of press interviews he grants.  He’s supposedly made himself available for an astonishing 269 interviews since his inauguration.  Besides the interviews there have been numerous town halls including one at Facebook company headquarters and another involving Twitter.  So he’s hardly isolated.  In short, he’s no Nixon.

News conferences in any case are overrated. They typify everything that’s gone wrong with politics since television became dominant.  They are superficial and heavily stage-managed, usually producing little in the way of real news.  Most of the time they amount to pseudo events, to use Daniel Boorstin’s apt phrase.  Except for the doting mothers of the reporters who get picked to ask questions, does anybody really feel these conferences are worth the hype that usually surrounds them? 

Still, a democracy does politics with the system it has, not some better utopian model.  And in this system news conferences actually play a critical role—or can.  I can think of three overriding reasons to hope for a Second Great News Conference Revival.  1.  They force presidents to deal with unpleasant realities the sycophants around them may ordinarily prefer to keep at bay.  2.  They give reporters the opportunity to grill the president, something that they cannot do in the one-on-one interviews arranged by their media companies without leaving the impression that they are ingrates.  3.  They give millions of Americans, many of whom pay little attention to politics, a reason for tuning in to the news.  Seeing a president under attack by an inquisitive press corps can be riveting.  It may just be theater, but a lot of politics is just theater.  After a performance the audience usually goes away a little bit better informed.

If we were serious about democracy in this country we would demand that presidents face the press at least two or three times a month--not one on one, as they sometimes do now, but en masse, in full body armor against the phalanx of a restive corps of hungry journalists, seated at a formal news conference.  It is after all the only forum we have where they are treated like British prime ministers to close public scrutiny.  And despite the opportunities for stagecraft, news conferences often give us the only unscripted moments we get of our presidents.  These make presidents human.

Nothing in the Constitution requires news conferences.  And for the first century in the history of the United States presidents didn’t meet with the press on a regular basis.  Nothing like a Washington press corps even existed before William McKinley.  But once government became intrusive press conferences became essential.  It’s no coincidence that Wilson began the practice since it was under his administration that government began to play a role in the daily life of Americans. 

Of course news conferences pose risks for presidents.  Once they began to be televised – indeed because they were televised – the chance an off-hand comment could throw a president on the defensive became great.  It’s no wonder that after television the news conference as an institution declined.  Few presidents were so gifted as JFK that they could routinely turn in a flawless performance.  Obama, for all his gifts of oratory, has been bedeviled by the news conference format.  Last summer his acerbic throw-away line about the “stupid” way the Cambridge police had acted in arresting professor Henry Louis Gates upended his administration’s efforts to get the country focused on the healthcare debate. 

The Golden Age of the news conference may be over.  But if it is we should all pause for a moment to bow our heads in shame and take note of its passing.  For it was one of the great innovations of American politics, even when presidents required questions to be submitted in advance and even if the conferences were held off-the-record, as was the norm until Ike let the cameras in and then Kennedy allowed the events to be broadcast live.  How democratic that in a powerful country the president was made to stop and take notice of the press!  How sad that we have let this institution whither.  How crazy is it that while the country has been getting more and more democratic the news media’s check on the presidency has been growing weaker and weaker?

The mental image of a president meeting several times a week with the press shouldn’t be something we have to conjure up from the history books about FDR or Truman. There’s no reason presidents today couldn’t follow their example, with certain modifications to take television into account.  If Obama wants to be remembered as a transformational figure, this is one way he could do so. 

Anybody want to bet he will?  I didn’t think so.

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