Take More Questions, Mr. President
President Barack Obama held his traditional year-ender news conference today. It was his first since one after the midterm elections, and only his seventh solo outing this year. At that rate, he’s on track to roughly match Bill Clinton for solo appearances and do a few more than George W. Bush, though both of predecessors participated in more joint press conferences.
I don’t have a full count , but I’m pretty sure Obama has taken far fewer questions per press conference (and therefore overall) than Bush or Clinton. Mainly because his answers are … well, long. We're talking senatorial long. Stall and delay long. The last two minutes of a football game long.
As an example, George W. Bush called on 14 reporters in his year-end news conference in 2006. Clinton didn’t have one in December 1998, during the impeachment episode, but in December 1997, he called on (if my count is correct) 32 reporters. Clinton isn’t known for being succinct or tight-lipped, but he gave short answers along with a few stem-winders.
Presidential news conferences aren’t magical; There's no reason to believe that if the president met with the press constantly, as Franklin D. Roosevelt did, he could somehow be “forced” to answer questions he doesn't like. And of course modern presidents have no shortage of outlets to make their views known. But there is still something valuable in being able to hear presidents respond on whatever the press corps believes is important. And when he’s answering just a handful of questions a month, it makes that task impossible. The eight questions today were on solid topics, but no one raised torture, and I’m sure there are a half-dozen other important issues that weren't addressed.
This isn't good for the president, either. Making news conferences more regular, and taking more questions (with shorter answers!) reduces the weight of each edition and each answer. It also gives the president an excellent format for making his positions official. He still can duck a question if he really doesn’t want to answer it.
Obama has held 46 solo press conferences. He’d be making a positive contribution to the presidency if he held another 25 in his final two years -- with shorter answers and a lot more questions.
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