Meet the press

     

    I had to read the announcement twice, just to ensure that I was correctly processing the information. But, yes, it appears to be true: President Obama is now scheduled to conduct a press conference one week from today.

    Obama and the White House press corps, doing actual Q and A…what a concept. Despite candidate Obama’s promise to conduct the “most open and transparent administration in American history,” the press conference ritual has become nearly as rare as the sighting of Haley’s Comet.

    Conservatives assume, and frequently complain, that the press loves Obama and that Obama loves it back. Dead wrong. Relations between the president and the people who cover him are actually quite hostile. Obama himself rarely interacts with them, and, according to various press reports, Obama’s aides are described as “prickly,” “thin-skinned,” and “stingy with even basic information.”

    Granted, some of these institutional tensions occur in all administrations; every president tries to “control the message,” and the press always resists. But Obama and his team had vowed to open up in an unprecedented fashion. Instead, they’ve shut down. And the statistics prove it.

    Bill Clinton averaged 24 press conferences a year. George H.W. Bush averaged 35 a year. Bush’s son, George W., despite his press-averse reputation, averaged 19 press conferences during his first two years. And Obama? He conducted only five press conferences during 2009 – and this year, only one.

    It’s not hard to figure out why Obama has been so stingy. He’s actually not very adept at those events. As evidenced last year, during one press conference dominated by the health care issue, his answers are often longer than the Gettysburg address. And even when seemingly in control, he’s prone to stepping in poop; 14 months ago, in the waning moments of a press conference, he riffed on the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and declared that the Cambridge Police had “acted stupidly” – thereby trumping everything else he had said during the previous hour.

    Obama has been relatively Garboesque in other settings as well. Presidents have traditionally taken a few questions from the press pool during news events – while strolling past the rope line, while posing for photos with a visiting dignitary, while meeting with foreign leaders abroad. But Obama doesn’t like these informal Q & As, either. According to Towson University professor Martha Kuma, an expert on press-presidential relations, Obama took press questions on 46 occasions during his first year in office. George W. Bush, in his first year, logged 147 times. Bill Clinton, in his first year, 252 times.

    Granted, nobody is going to cry a river for the White House press corps. Sometimes it fixates on trivia, sometimes it exhibits what author and professor Deborah Tannen has called “the ethic of aggression.” But Obama ill serves himself by resisting the spontaneity of open exchanges. At a time when so many Americans are freaked about the future (today’s economic report includes an uptick in the jobless rate to 9.6 percent) – indeed, at a time when Democratic voters need a darn good reason to turn out in the November elections – this president needs to engage far more frequently with the journalists who cover him. Imperfect as they may be, they still function as surrogates for an anxious public. By dodging the surrogates so often, Obama further undercuts his promise of transparency.

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    However, Obama’s press relations are stellar when compared to Sarah Palin’s. The former half-term governor is the subject of an unflattering new Vanity Fair article. If you want to read about her mercurial temperament, and about how she and her spouse hurl kitchen items at each other, this is the place to go.  She basically confirmed the material about her temper on Wednesday when she lashed out at the press during an appearance on Sean Hannity’s show. Check this out:

    “Those who are impotent and limp and gutless and they go on their anonymous – sources that are anonymous – and impotent, limp and gutless reporters take anonymous sources and cite them as being factual references.”

    “Impotent and limp”? Gee, that seems to be a bit…um…below the belt. Ever since Spiro Agnew, we’ve been accustomed to hearing the press pejoratively described as “liberal.” But never before, at least to my knowledge, has a political figure suggested that journalists are afflicted with a manhood deficit that can only be cured by Viagra. In terms of rhetorical infauxtainment alone, John McCain’s gift to America just keeps on giving.

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    I did an hour of politics today on WHYY’s “Radio Times,” along with Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review Online. It’s archived here.

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    I’m off the grid on Monday, for the Labor Day holiday. See you on the flip side.

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