President Obama has held just one full length, multi-topic, solo press conference in the last six months, effectively abolishing the most accessible venue for American citizens to observe the thinking and learn the views of their leader.
It’s May, and the president has stood for only a single such news conference this year, a March 6 event in the briefing room. He’s had only three since last June, counting a November press conference in Hawaii that was supposed to be devoted to the just-held Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit but which veered off into other issues.
Nor does Obama generally allow questioning during brief appearances at the White House, such as when he makes statements with foreign leaders. Previous presidents, including George W. Bush, routinely took a couple of questions on the topic of the day at such gatherings.
Bush also held fewer press conferences than he should have. But this doesn’t excuse Obama, who would seem especially obligated to appear before the press given his pledges to maintain an “openness” administration.
Instead, the White House does its best to control access to Obama, presenting him to local and sometimes national reporters in “one-on-one” settings.
While these sessions occasionally do make news, they are poor substitute for formal press conferences. The local reporters are often not as well versed in the subtleties of national and international news as White House reporters and are more likely to be intimidated when suddenly finding themselves sitting in the White House interviewing the president.
And whether local or national reporters, those granted one-on-one interviews often aren’t given much time to probe – particularly with Obama’s longish answers – and so are incentivized to stick to their few prepared questions and “get them in” before time runs out. And a special invitation to interview the president is such a coveted coup for any news organization that there is enormous incentive to tread lightly for fear of never being invited back again while watching your competitors be welcomed instead.
And of course, the audience for each of these sessions is limited.
Press conferences are extraordinarily important for several reasons. A number of questions are asked on different topics. The pressure of being on national TV forces the president to explain his thinking. The public gets to actually see the president think and understand how he comes to his conclusions, an invaluable public service.
What’s more, the prospect of a press conference forces the White House to think through its own views. Everybody in the West Wing, including the president, has to stop and consider just what they are doing and why. Often the agencies are mined for answers about current policies so that White House aides can prepare the president, giving the West Wing valuable feedback about what’s going on.
Of course, Obama has switched almost fully from governing to campaigning. So maybe the need for a West Wing gut check has declined, since policy is mostly being made not in Washington but in Chicago. The home, of course, of the Obama 2012 campaign.