Of course, he hates speaking to the press. George W. Bush, whom I also covered, didn’t like it either, and stayed away as often as he could.
Bill Clinton, whose last few years I covered, loved press conferences – except during the Lewinsky scandal, when he stopped talking to the free press – and was really good at them.
Because he loves attention. In fact, during the last years of his presidency, in the post-Monica era, I heard reporters complain that they couldn’t get away from Bill Clinton. He took questions every time he appeared in public. He’d drop by the press cabin during Air Force One flights and wear everyone out. There were times I was afraid people were going to run out of things to ask him.
And then there was George H.W. Bush, whom I didn’t cover. He held 56 solo press conferences in the first two years of his presidency alone, nearly three times as many as Obama during the same period and eight times as many as his son.
President Obama has held only one extended, formal press conference all year, helping him avoid the toughest questioners he could face but undermining his claim to have maintained an “openness” White House.
Obama’s sole traditional press conference in 2012 was on March 6 in the White House briefing room. While he has taken questions in a few other venues, this is the only time he has appeared at what is generally understood to be a “presidential press conference” – a scheduled, extended session in which he fields questions on a variety of topics.
Press conferences are a vital format because the public gets a chance to see the president think on his feet – without a teleprompter – and express himself on the issues of the day while being called to account by reporters.
And yet, Obama’s absence from the press conference podium has failed to raise a stir. George W. Bush was sharply criticized when he avoided the national press.
Since appearing before reporters June 20 in Mexico after the G20 Summit to field a mere six questions that focused mostly on foreign affairs, Obama has barely taken any questions at all from the White House press corps, even as he has sat down with local reporters, the ladies of The View, David Letterman, and Jay Leno.
Under pressure to speak with serious national journalists, including from a piece that appeared in White House Dossier, Obama suddenly popped into the briefing room on August 20 to spend twenty minutes with reporters. That was more than two months ago, and since then there’s been nothing.
The current White House press corps is not as aggressive in its questioning of this White House as it was of either the Bush or Clinton White Houses. But White House reporters are still better versed in national issues and more likely to be unafraid to sharply question the president of the United States than local and other types of reporters.
In addition to eschewing press conferences, Obama has all but put an end to the practice of taking questions from reporters at “pool sprays,” which occur when the press is ushered into a room – usually the Oval Office – where Obama has just had a meeting and wants to make some remarks.
Bush and Clinton routinely took questions on the important matters of the day at such moments. Obama almost never does.
Both of Obama’s predecessors also frequently answered queries after delivering brief speeches at the White House in the Rose Garden and other venues.