The End of Presidential Press Conferences
It's hardly surprising that White House correspondents are getting antsy at events as festive as Monday's Easter Egg Roll. President Donald Trump is far from approaching even Ronald Reagan's low standard for holding solo press conferences, the grandest display of engagement between our chief executive and the fourth estate.
Reagan only held 46 of them during his eight years, which was the record lowest pace during the era in which we have statistics (going back to Calvin Coolidge). 1 Trump's only held one in more than 15 months in office. He's held a healthy number of combined press conferences with a foreign leaders -- 21 -- although he's fallen behind that pace this year. 2
The larger question is about Trump's availability to reporters: Is it sufficient? Trump will sometimes take questions in impromptu groups of White House reporters. He'll sit down for extended interviews with individual reporters or a team from one outlet, which past presidents have done with both national and local media. And he'll sometimes answer shouted questions; according to one reporter, he does that a lot more than Barack Obama did. Indeed he did that at the Easter Egg event that provoked some outrage. He answered CNN's Jim Acosta's first question before ignoring the follow-up.
The other question is just how important formal press conferences are, anyway. Would it really be a big deal if Trump's February 16, 2017 effort turned out to be the last one ever?
In a way, there's nothing special about them; nothing that separates them from all the other formats in which all presidents wind up answering questions from reporters. There's really very little to distinguish them from impromptu sessions -- it's not as if the very competent White House press corps really needs advance notice to prepare their questions (indeed, I suspect that most White House correspondents would be fully prepared to ask a long list of questions if the president woke them up in the middle of the night with no notice at all).
Nor do either formal press conferences or any other format force the president to talk about something he doesn't want to talk about. No one gets to the White House without learning the skill of deflecting a question -- even a perfectly conceived one.
But on balance, presidential press conferences are an institution worth saving. Even if they aren't the only, or even necessarily the best, way for presidents to interact with real questioners, they at least guarantee that he'll be exposed to tough questions from independent reporters on a somewhat regular basis.
I suspect we all intuitively think that's important in a democracy without knowing precisely why. I'll suggest that it's related to representation. A healthy representational relationship requires that politicians explain their actions in office to their constituents. That imperative, however, conflicts with the natural incentive to only report good news, including the good news of promises fulfilled. A politician who must take questions has a greater chance of being nudged into explaining all of his or her actions with respect to promises, even the ones that haven't worked out well. 3 Again, that's not by forcing them to admit failure; no question can make a skilled politician do that. But it at least pushes them to have something to say about their promises, even if it's only ducking the topic.
The other reason for preserving and defending presidential press conferences is for their purely symbolic value. Whatever their actual importance, these events have come to stand for democratic values of openness in government and the idea that the president works for the people, rather than ruling over them. We should value such democratic norms even if they didn't make much sense to begin with.
I've been surprised and a bit disappointed that the press hasn't made a bigger fuss about Trump's failure to hold solo news conferences. I hope they step up the pressure. And I suppose yelling questions at otherwise inappropriate times is one way to do it.
It's also no surprise that the press is reacting to Trump's lack of press conferences the way they did to Reagan's -- by becoming increasingly aggressive about shouting questions.
Joint news conferences were a George H.W. Bush innovation; from 1991 through 2008, presidents averaged about 16 of those a year. They're much more abbreviated than regular press conferences, with the president getting only a couple of questions from domestic reporters, so they're not exactly a substitute for regular solo events -- and apparently the White House is planning on chopping the dual conferences in half.
And remember that "promises" in this context doesn't only mean policy commitments; it also means all of the ways someone can act in office, such as a promise to hire the very best people or to act very presidential if elected.
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Mike Nizza at email@example.com