Thursday, April 30, 2009

President Obama's Prime Time Pressers: more like a speech than a press conference

Obama’s Prime Time Pressers: A speech with questions

From a public policy perspective, there were a number of things wrong with last night’s Presidential press conference. A good press conference elicits useful information; identifies and challenges the President on any of his weak spots; educates the media and the public on important public policy issues and engages the President on the issues. Lacking these traits, a President Obama prime time press conference seems more like a speech, interrupted by occasional questions from the media. [This was noted by Dick Morris and Bill O'Reilly on Fox's O'Reilly Factor last night]. In this post, I will assess the nature and style of the questions that were asked of President Obama last night.

Included, below, in Appendix 1 to this post, are the transcribed questions, in the order they were asked last night.

Poor shot selection by the media

When you read over the entire set of questions asked last night [See Appendix 1, below], an obvious flaw is shot selection. In the President’s first two prime time press conferences since his inauguration, he did both in about an hour, and took thirteen questions each time. His pattern has been to set these up in a way that makes follow-ups difficult, but he will entertain them. Thus, the media should have a pretty good idea, beforehand, that very few questions will be asked. So, the priority ones should get asked early in the presser.

Last night was a repeat of the President’s first two prime time pressers, thirteen questions asked in about a fifty five minute presser (including about an eight minute introductory statement).

President Obama: Conductor in Chief

In all three prime time pressers, the press conference was well orchestrated by the President. He has a list of thirteen people to call on, and he follows that script, to a T, calling on the pre-selected media member in the order listed on his cheat sheet. The press goes along with these procedures and they don’t bother to raise their hands. Why do that? The President doesn’t respond to raised hands; he responds to his cheat sheet.

This protocol was established when Obama was President-Elect and held the pressers in Chicago. According to reliable sources, the press to be called upon are notified the night before. One reason, it is said, is to avoid the embarrassment to the President and the media organization of a media member being called upon, but not showing up- for some reason. Also, the media don’t have to prepare needlessly—if the President has a script and follows it—and notice is given to the media

Chris Matthews on Zombie-like media

Chris Matthews asked one of his guests last night, in his post-Presser Hardball show, why the media were so zombie-like at the pressers [Matthews said the media at the pressers "are like dead people" and the pressers are "so-boring." Matthews’ guest [Lawrence O’Donnell] argued this is because Obama has so much to say, knows so much and his answers "may be designed to put you to sleep." Obama is indeed quite smart and informed. However, the real reason for the zombie-like appearance of the media is that 90 % of the media have nothing to do there.

Paraphrasing Ollie North’s lawyer’s self-description at the Iran-Contra hearings, most of the media at the Obama pressers are kind of like potted plants. Unlike a real press conference, where media members try to keep up with the flow, clamor to be called upon and shout out sharp questions, here—they sort of “mail it in.”

Bad questions from the White House media

And, many of the press questions at the Obama pressers are ineptly phrased and ill conceived. The basics of a good press conference question is that it (1) gets to the heart of the issue, (2) challenges the person being questioned from the opposite side. Thus, if Obama got elected on Bush’s bad economy, you might want to have five of your collective thirteen questions on the economy. If Obama tends to be left, then, in general, media questions should come from the right— even as questions to President Bush should have come from the left.

Let’s apply the above theory to see if we can do some re-writing of the White House Press Corps’ questions. The numbers correspond to the order and number in the Appendix, below, of the actual questions asked:

Re-writing the questions for the White House media

1. Jennifer Loven from AP started her question with “Can you talk about” That is like starting your cross examination of a witness with—“Can you talk about.” Not a good idea. Loven should have asked, “As soon it was clear that the swine flu was spreading, in large part, from Mexico, don’t you think you and your public health officials should have decided to close the border with Mexico, including all air, rail and auto traffic with Mexico.” It would have been a tough, provocative question and we would have learned something from the President—would the border closing really have been like “closing the barn door after the horse had gotten out.”

2. Deb Price of Detroit News states, “Have you determined that bankruptcy is the only option to restructure Chrysler.” Well, clearly that is not the case because that is not what they are doing. And, the President said that. Moreover, Price should have asked, “Shouldn’t you, and President Bush before you, have let Chrysler go into bankruptcy. If you had done that, don’t you think you would have saved the taxpayers billions of dollars and we would have been much closer to having a viable, pruned down version of Chrysler coming out of bankruptcy right now, and that entity would have been a more secure provider of jobs in the auto industry than is currently the case.”

3. Jake Tapper of ABC News on torture. Even though Tapper is asking the question to Obama from the left, it is still a good question (although not as good as No. 4 in the Appendix below, from CBS’ Knoller, who asked his question on torture from the right.). However, Tapper should have gone one step further. Instead of asking only—do you believe the previous administration sanctioned torture, he should have tacked on this one: Do you believe that Attorney General Holder should prosecute those who sanctioned torture. When the President objects and says he “doesn’t want to prejudge that,” Tapper should state, “this is a policy matter, doesn’t the buck stop with you on public policy?”

The question that should have been asked last night

Finally, only one of the questions last night touched on the economy, and it didn’t get to the core issue, which is the potential negative impact, long term, of the out-sized Obama deficits on the economy. Someone should have asked this one:

The George W. Bush deficits, about which the Democrats complained vigorously, were about 3% of GDP until the last year of the Bush Administration. The Obama deficits, during much of the next decade, are projected at about 9% of GDP. Are you concerned about crowding the private sector out of private investment, with private capital being used to finance the Obama federal government deficits?

Maybe Fox’s Major Garrett will get called on next time and he can ask the above question.

ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN each had a question last night. But, not FNC. And, although FNC carried the speech, the Fox broadcast channel did not. A coincidence, no doubt.
Appendix 1- Questions asked by media at President Obama’s April 29, 2009 Press Conference

1. President Obama: And with that, I will start taking some questions. And, I’ll start with you, Jennifer [Jennifer Loven, AP]

Question: Thank you, Mr. President. With the flu outbreak spreading and worsening, can you talk about whether you think it's time to close the border with Mexico, and whether -- under what conditions you might consider quarantining, when that might be appropriate.

2. President Obama: Deb Price of Detroit News. Where is Deb? Good to see you.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. On the domestic auto industry, have you determined that bankruptcy is the only option to restructure Chrysler? And do you believe that the deep cuts and plant closings that were outlined this week by General Motors are sufficient?

3. President Obama: Jake. Where's Jake? There he is. [Jake Tapper, ABC News]

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. You've said in the past that waterboarding in your opinion is torture. And torture is a violation of international law and the Geneva Conventions. Do you believe that the previous administration sanctioned torture?

QUESTION: Sorry, sir --

MR. OBAMA: I'm sorry.

FOLLOW-UP QUESTION: Do you believe the previous administration sanctioned torture?

4. President Obama: Mark Knoller [CBS Radio]
QUESTION: Thank you, sir. Let me follow up, if I may, on Jake's question. Did you read the documents recently referred to by former Vice President Cheney and others, saying that the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques not only protected the nation but saved lives? And if part of the United States were under imminent threat, could you envision yourself ever authorizing the use of those enhanced interrogation techniques?

5. President Obama: Chuck Todd [NBC News].

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. Want to move to Pakistan. Pakistan appears to be at war with the Taliban inside their own country.

MR. OBAMA: Right.

QUESTION: Can you reassure the American people that, if necessary, America could secure Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and keep it from getting into the Taliban's hands, or worst-case scenario, even al Qaeda's hands?

FOLLOW-UP QUESTION: But in a worst-case scenario, the military -

MR. OBAMA: I'm not going to engage in --

QUESTION: -- the U.S. military could secure this nuclear --

6. President Obama: Jeff Mason [Reuters].

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. One of the biggest changes you've made, in the first 100 days, regarding foreign policy, has had to do with Iraq. But do the large- scale -- is the large-scale violence there right now -- does that affect the U.S. strategy at all for withdrawal? And could it affect the timetable that you've set out for troops?

7. President Obama: Chip Reid [CBS TV NEWS]

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. On Senator Specter's switch to the Democratic Party, you said you were thrilled. I guess nobody should be surprised about that. But how big a deal is this really?

Some Republicans say it is huge. They believe it's a game changer. They say that if you get the 60 votes in the Senate, that you will be able to ride roughshod over any opposition, and that we're on the verge of, as one Republican put it, one-party rule.

Do you see it that way? And also, what do you think his switch says about the state of the Republican Party?

FOLLOW-UP QUESTION: Is the Republican Party in the desperate straits that Arlen Specter seems to think it is?

8. President Obama: Ed Henry [CNN News]

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. In a couple of weeks, you're going to be giving the commencement at Notre Dame, and as you know, this has caused a lot of controversy among Catholics who are opposed to your position on abortion.

As a candidate, you vowed that one of the very first things you wanted to do was sign the Freedom of Choice Act, which, as you know, would eliminate federal, state and local restrictions on abortion. And at one point in the campaign, when asked about abortion and life, you said that it was above -- quote, "above my pay grade."

Now that you've been president for a hundred days, obviously your pay grade is a little higher than when you were a senator. (Laughter.) Do you still hope that Congress quickly sends you the Freedom of Choice Act, so you can sign it?

9. President Obama: Jeff Zeleny [New York Times].

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. During these first 100 days, what has surprised you the most about this office, enchanted you the most about serving in this office, humbled you the most and troubled you the most?

MR. OBAMA: Let me write this down. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Surprised.

MR. OBAMA: All right. I've got --
QUESTION: Troubled.

MR. OBAMA: I've got -- what was the first one?
QUESTION: Surprised.

MR. OBAMA: Surprised.
QUESTION: Troubled.

MR. OBAMA: Troubled.
QUESTION: Enchanted.

MR. OBAMA: Enchanted. Nice. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: And humbled.

MR. OBAMA: And what was the last one, humbled?
QUESTION: Humbled.
Thank you, sir.

MR. OBAMA: All right. (Laughter.) Okay. (Laughter.)

10. President Obama: Lori Montenegro [Telemundo]

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. Mr. President, when you met with the Hispanic Caucus a few weeks ago --

QUESTION: -- reports came out that the White House was planning to have a forum to talk about immigration and bring it to the forefront.

QUESTION: Going forward, my question is, what is your strategy to try to have immigration reform? And are you still on the same timetable to have it in -- accomplished in the first year of your presidency?
And also, I'd like to know if you're going to reach out to Senator John McCain, who is Republican and in the past has favored immigration reform.

FOLLOW-UP QUESTION: (Do you see accomplishing it ?) in the first year of your administration?

11. President Obama: Andre Showell [BET]. There you go.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. As the entire nation tries to climb out of this deep recession, in communities of color the circumstances are far worse. The black unemployment rate, as you know, is in the double digits, and in New York City, for example, the black unemployment rate for men is near 50 percent.
My question tonight is, given this unique and desperate circumstance, what specific policies can you point to that will target these communities? And what's a timetable for us to see tangible results?

12. President Obama: Michael Scherer of Time.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. During the campaign, you criticized President Bush's use of the state secrets privilege, but U.S. attorneys have continued to argue the Bush position in three cases in court. How exactly does your view of state secrets differ from President Bush's? And do you believe presidents should be able to derail entire lawsuits about warrantless wiretapping or rendition if classified information is involved?

13. President Obama: Jonathan Weisman [WSJ], you get -- you get the last word. Where are you? There you are.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir.

MR. OBAMA: Yeah.

QUESTION: You are currently the chief shareholder of a couple of very large mortgage giants. You are about to become the chief shareholder of a car company, probably two.

I'm wondering, what kind of shareholder are you going to be? What is the government's role, as the keeper of public -- public trusts and bonds in -- in soon-to-be public companies again

FOLLOW-UP QUESTION: And could you shape the products and services that are on offer?
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