President Obama seems to have recently discarded the advice of timid advisors who bought into the media's "overexposed" myth last summer, and has hit the ground running in the past few weeks. Perhaps it is due to the re-emergence of David Plouffe, but for whatever reason, Obama has been out there talking to people again. He held a few town hall events surrounding his high-profile State Of The Union address last week, and then delighted many Democrats by entering the lions' den of the House Republican retreat on Friday, where he answered questions for over an hour -- with the television cameras rolling. He needs to cap off this recent communications strategy shift with something that has been missing for months -- a real press conference.
This doesn't (as a sop to the "overexposed" crowd) necessarily have to be a primetime event, either. It can be a little more informal than that, without the pomp of an evening press conference broadcast nationally on all channels. But it should be at least an hour long, and it should be held soon.
The last formal primetime press conference President Obama held was way back in July. Since that time, Obama has spoken directly to the press only (by my count, searching the White House website) six times -- four of which were joint press availabilities with foreign leaders, mostly on foreign soil. Obama met the press with the leaders of Canada, Japan, and South Korea on separate occasions in other countries. The most recent joint press availability was held in the White House a little over two months ago, with the Indian Prime Minister.
The other two times Obama spoke to the press were in Pittsburgh (at the G20 meeting), back in September, and then in December in Copenhagen. In Pittsburgh, Obama answered five questions during an event that took (including opening remarks) 26 minutes. In Copenhagen, Obama answered seven questions during an event that lasted 23 minutes -- again, including opening remarks. Meaning that since July of last year, Obama has spent less than an hour in front of the press, both times outside the White House.
This is a marked difference from the first half of Obama's first year in office. And it needs to change quickly if Obama truly has a chance of setting the agenda for the upcoming year. Besides, what better way to follow up Friday's appearance before the Republican meeting than by taking on all press inquiries? It would boost Obama's leadership credentials at a time when they sorely need a boost with the public, according to opinion polls.
I would even dare to suggest that Obama give such a press conference, and show he really is interested in "going over the heads of the press to The People" (as Ronald Reagan was famous for doing), by refusing to call on any major network's reporters -- and, instead, give a press conference where the only questions he takes are from smaller press outlets, local press, and bloggers from the Left and Right. [Full Disclosure: I do not have a White House press pass, and therefore am not trying to boost my own chances of asking President Obama a question by suggesting this.]
Actually, if he really wanted to make a splash, Obama could take precisely one question from a "mainstream media" reporter -- from Fox News. After all, what could Fox News throw at him that the Republicans didn't already try last Friday? This would send waves through the big media types (consumed with their own sense of self-importance as they are), and would allow Fox to brag endlessly about their "coup" in the press conference.
But even discarding my fantasy of seeing everyone in the back row called upon, to the chagrin of those in the front row being shut out, it is still nigh on time for Obama to talk to the press a little more regularly than he has done since last summer.
Because press conferences are a big part of the "transparency" which Obama so frequently professes. It's not just about government websites, and releasing facts and figures more often -- it's also about the American people's access to the president through the organ of the free press. OK, that's a little idealistic, I fully admit, but even with the ink-stained wretches we've currently got to work with in the White House press corps, it is still time for Obama to allow the Fourth Estate to confront him.
Obama should, in fact, announce that he will return to a regular schedule of holding press conferences (whether formal or informal -- morning, afternoon, or primetime) at least once a month.
Because while "the narrative" in the media spun wildly out of the White House's (and the Democrats') control in the past six months or so, you can't just blame Republicans or the media for this. Blame also rests with Democrats -- and most importantly, Obama -- for allowing their message to be all but squelched in such a fashion.
Because if you refuse to talk to the press regularly, then you simply don't have a leg to stand on when it comes to complaining about what the press is saying about you.
So here's hoping that whatever advisors Obama seems to be currently listening to (who are telling him: "Get out and talk to people!") are truly in the ascendancy in the White House. Here's hoping this is not just a minor political tactic rolled out for the week surrounding Obama's big yearly speech to Congress, but in fact a whole new political strategy from the White House. And the best way to prove that, at this point, is to call a press conference in the next few days. Or even "the next week or two." But not -- as in the recent past -- "twenty minutes or so, every three months."
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
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-- Chris Weigant