He held his last in the White House, with all topics open, on July 22, 2009. It aimed to launch that summer's push for the enactment of health care, but got derailed at the end by an extended improvised answer about the arrest of the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The president could have said that he was not the police chief or even the mayor of Cambridge but he trusted the incident would be resolved in line with the law and the rights of a citizen. Instead, he eased into an omni-competent riff--"I should say at the outset that Skip Gates is a friend"--which came to a head with the pronouncement that the Cambridge police had "acted stupidly." This, instead of health care, became the riveting national news for days. Obama's advisers thought it a fiasco, and it turned them against the very idea of press conferences.
True, we hear plenty of this president by other means. But we ought to reckon what we have lost if the White House goes on treating the presidential press conference as an outmoded convention. The custom goes back a century, to Woodrow Wilson; but the televised press conference, where reporters ask unscripted questions, properly began with President Kennedy. The practice calls for meeting with the press for an hour or so, at semi-regular intervals. Mutual pleasure is not part of the contract. "I will mount the weekly cross," Eisenhower is reported to have said, "and let you drive the nails."
For anyone familiar with the public life of postwar America, this has been one of the inseparable routines of our democracy. What are the criteria that make the occasion all that it should be? It must (according to Professor Matthew Dickinson of Middlebury College) be scheduled in advance, so that reporters have the time to prepare; reporters must then be allowed to ask any question they want; but the president chooses which ones to call on. This permits the play of prejudice, of course, but, over time, a craven self-protectiveness will be exposed. Statistics on the frequency of press conferences for recent presidents are surprising in some ways. George H.W. Bush leads the field, with nearly three press conferences a month; Nixon, by contrast, is close to the bottom, with one every seven weeks. Reagan held fewer than one every two months. In between are LBJ and Clinton, at about twice a month.
Barack Obama now lags behind both Reagan and Nixon. He held five press conferences during his first six months in office, and none in the ten months that followed. The traits of the Obama press conference were well marked by Professor Dickinson in some comments on the first of them:
the one thing that stood out was his ability to filibuster by giving lengthy responses. Particularly at the start of the Q&A, Obama gave elaborate, lengthy answers to questions. I thought this served two useful purposes: it ate up a lot of time, preventing other reporters from getting questions in. And--with luck--it meant that his core message would be more likely to lead the media coverage of the conference.
A similar calculation entered into Obama's conduct of the health care summit, at which 38 lawmakers were invited as participants but the president spoke for two hours out of the seven hours it took.
Obama surprised many people during the 2008 primaries by expressing his admiration for the methods and results if not the politics of Ronald Reagan. Their common aversion (as it now appears) from meetings with the press corps may prompt one to expand on the resemblance. Both the Reagan and Obama presidencies have been guided by simple messages and a flattering emphasis on the personality of the leader. Obama, like Reagan, cultivates an image of maximum accessibility, while avoiding, so far as possible, public occasions that involve him in a confrontation with facts for which he is answerable.
Outside formal press conferences, President Obama, of course, has taken questions from the press since last July; but he has done so on foreign soil, or in the company of a visiting dignitary at home. Also, these have been single-issue occasions or their subject matter has been otherwise restricted.
The press itself has kept a decent silence thus far, and only two articles of some substance have appeared on the lapse of the custom: one by Karen Travers at ABC and an unsigned report at the Fox News site.
The latter story offers a revealing comparative figure, supplied by Professor Martha Joynt Kumar of Towson State University, about President Obama's alternative methods of exposure to reporters and to the public at large. He has had 47 short exchanges with reporters, compared to 147 for George W. Bush in his first year, and 252 for Bill Clinton. But the figures for arranged interviews go the other way: in his first year Obama gave 161 interviews, compared to 50 for Bush and 53 for Clinton.
Even these statistics fail to convey an adequate impression of the Obama "television blitz" last fall, and his extensive use of the town-hall format. As Travers puts it: "Five Sunday morning political show interviews, breaking down NASCAR and college basketball on ESPN, dropping by David Letterman's show and appearing in a promo for a new television show featuring comedian George Lopez, it seemed as though the president was on every channel talking about everything under the sun." But did this also somehow weaken the impression of the gravity of his office? It certainly indicated a confused embrace of a multiplicity of roles. Ombudsman, publicist, cheerleader, private friend and cher ami--all are excellent things to be, but you cannot be them all and be the president, too. Or, not in such a way that people will see you as all these things, and also want to see you as their president.
The accuracy of the last remark may presume a vanished state of manners. Obama may have found the pulse of the "new social media" (though his poll numbers seem to suggest otherwise). But the dignified part of government, if that is a thing people care for and want to respect, cannot easily coexist with a network-sweep of interviews, and jocular appearances on Leno and Letterman, and the proliferation of town-hall and other local settings, in which the questions come not from a reporter bristling with a record of your self-contradictions, but rather from a more benign version of Joe the Plumber. Yet the Obama strategy derives from the Reagan instinct: go with a presentation of keen availability while steering clear, so far as you can, of any encounter with unpleasant details and the persons who know the meaning of those details.
At a recent session with reporters, Robert Gibbs was asked about the future of press conferences. He replied with a gambit. You accuse us of overexposure, and now you want press conferences. A crafty evasion and Gibbs pursued it a step by asking for a show of hands: how many reporters really wanted another press conference? But the vote went against him; they did, indeed, want the chance to ask the president questions of their choosing, and with a range of topics open.
The truth may be that for all the burdens and all the embarrassments of an honest press conference, Barack Obama called it quits too soon. The White House press corps is doubtless dull, pusillanimous, self-important and endlessly compromised, but even at its worst, the knowledge it can marshal, over a long sequence of questions, exceeds the information Robert Gibbs is willing to supply. The baffled citizen at a town-hall meeting who begs for the personal concern of the president is no match for the great Helen Thomas. The fact that she does not need him makes all the difference. So does her training in the acquisition and deployment of inconvenient facts. A president who wants to be regarded as both democratic and representative has in one sense no better medium than this. The press, too, is, in some degree, a representative institution. That is why Hazlitt and Macaulay described it as the "fourth estate in society."
What questions might come up at White House press conferences that have not somehow been addressed elsewhere? They cover a vast range. What has become of the plan for the closing of Guantanamo? Does the president still intend the indefinite detention of a select group of prisoners? What does he think of the proposal by Joe Lieberman to strip of citizenship all Americans who are suspected of terrorism? What is the legal basis for his ordering the assassination of an American citizen abroad, and is this a prerogative he plans to extend against citizens at home? How does he weigh the tactical uses beside the moral and constitutional disadvantages of a weakening of the Miranda protections for terror suspects? What of the 700 civilian deaths from Predator drone strikes in Pakistan (about which he made a tasteless joke at the White House Correspondents' Dinner)? Does he perceive the evidence of blowback from America's wars in Islamic lands (one instance of which was defused as he spoke at that dinner)? On none of these matters has President Obama yet been asked a pointed question. On none has he yet given an answer. And that is foreign policy alone.