President Obama will give an Oval Office address tomorrow night in primetime, on the subject of Iraq. This is a good idea, because it's a good use of the famed bully pulpit of the presidency, to highlight some good news. Speaking to the nation on television is a perk of office which can be quite effective in getting a message out to the American people. But there's another way to do this as well, and one that President Obama has all but ignored in the past year -- the presidential press conference. And it's about time we had another one.
The Obama team strategy has been to favor one-on-one press interviews over the formal setting of a press conference. The president, just last night, appeared on a major network in such a sit-down interview. But it's a mistake to barricade the president from press conferences, because they can also be quite effective at getting your message out. Press conferences are more of a duty than a perk to presidents, and apparently Obama has decided to just ignore doing this particular duty. This is a mistake. Obama really needs to get over his fear of press conferences, and start holding them on a regular basis.
Obama's snubbing of press conferences has been going on for roughly a year, now (actually more like 13 months). The last time I pointed this out was at the beginning of February, when I wrote:
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.
His record hasn't improved much since then. From the end of January to the current time, President Obama has answered questions from the press a total of twelve times. This sounds like a lot, but eight of these Obama was kind of forced into doing, as they were joint appearances with foreign leaders, and often very short. Of the remaining four times, Obama spoke with reporters for six minutes in one instance, 11 minutes in another, and one which was so short beginning and end times weren't even provided on the White House site (where Obama spoke a total of 110 words).
Obama really has only given one press conference since February. This makes a grand total of three since last July. Even being generous, and counting informal press availabilities, Obama has spent less than two hours answering questions from the press in the past thirteen months.
That's not enough.
Now, it's understandable that Obama's team wants to craft his message in one-on-one interviews. It allows them to control the narrative more. And Obama has had some shaky moments in press conferences (the one last July was where the whole "beer summit" fiasco began). But that still doesn't excuse the president from his dismal record on speaking to the press corps.
Sure, the White House press is like one of those cliques you used to hate in high school. And sure, they couldn't (collectively or singly) ask an intelligent followup question to save their lives. And, yes, the questions asked in press conferences are noted for their banality, for the most part.
But, again, this doesn't excuse Obama from speaking to the press regularly. It doesn't have to be in primetime (George W. Bush famously hated primetime press conferences, and held them in more informal settings and at more informal times), but realistically some sort of contact with the press should happen on a monthly basis, at least.
Obama has a communications problem, which is ironic when you think about how he campaigned. He is not seen as a very "fierce advocate" of his agenda items, preferring instead to work in the background and not step forward to claim credit until hours before a bill is ready to sign. But doing so cedes a large part of the public debate on the issue to others.
If, instead, Obama were taking questions on a regular basis and forcefully standing up for his ideas and his perception of day-to-day issues, he would do a much better job of making his case to the American people. Instead of Robert Gibbs saying things like "this is where the president stands on this issue," in his press briefings, Obama should be out there saying it himself on a regular basis.
Oval Office addresses, like the one tomorrow night, are a good way to speak directly to the public, but they are reserved for momentous occasions. The success of the troop withdrawal from Iraq certainly qualifies in this regard, as did the oil spill in the Gulf. But in between momentous occasions, the president needs to regularly share his views with the public as well -- at least if he has any intention of achieving his objectives. Relying on surrogates and cabinet members is fine, but there needs to be a strong voice coming from the top, as well. And it's worth suffering through all the truly stupid questions ("Mr. President, what do you think of the fact that one-fifth of Americans think you're a Muslim?" for instance) to get your major points across in the few intelligent questions that come your way.
So, while I'll watch tomorrow's Oval Office address, I will be thinking about the question I'd like to ask Obama right now: "Mr. President, when are you going to hold your next press conference?"
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
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-- Chris Weigant