- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 26, 2010

President Obama on Thursday will do something he doesn’t do very often: field questions from the White House press corps.

Since taking office 16 months ago, Mr. Obama’s availability to the full White House press corps is dwarfed by his two predecessors, creating friction between reporters and the administration.

Despite holding about the same number of “formal” press conferences as President George W. Bush, Mr. Obama has avoided “short Q&As,” holding 56, compared with Mr. Bush’s 186 and President Clinton’s 332 in the same time frame, according to Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson University professor who tracks the relationship between the White House and the media.

“I think presidents want to use forums that they’re comfortable with. In [Mr. Obama’s] case, he likes to explain things at length and in a press conference, you have to jump around,” Ms. Kumar said.

Indeed, Mr. Obama’s penchant for long answers has resulted in him taking fewer questions at the press conferences he does hold, taking around 13 compared with 20 for Mr. Clinton, she said, adding that Mr. Bush was somewhere in between.

The White House has consistently hit back against reporter criticism of Mr. Obama’s accessibility, pointing to his record number of network TV interviews and other media appearances.

On Thursday, Mr. Obama will “answer some questions” from reporters after reviewing a preliminary Interior Department report on the BP oil catastrophe, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said earlier this week. But whether that constitutes a formal press conference is in the eye of the beholder

By the strictest definition, some consider Mr. Obama’s last news conference to be July 2009, when he famously addressed the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, siding with Mr. Gates and questioning the behavior of the Cambridge, Mass., police. His answer caused such an uproar he later had to defuse the situation by inviting both Mr. Gates and the arresting officer to the White House for beers.

By the count of Ms. Kumar, Mr. Obama has conducted 32 press conferences thus far — 13 on his own and 19 with a foreign leader — slightly better than Mr. Bush but far behind Mr. Clinton.

In the same time frame, Mr. Bush had 30, five solo and 25 joint, and Mr. Clinton had 57, 18 solo appearances and 39 joint. Mr. Obama has held more prime-time news conferences than his predecessors, however, with four thus far, compared with one for Mr. Bush and two for Mr. Clinton.

Mr. Obama has done 190 one-on-one interviews, according to veteran White House reporter Mark Knoller of CBS. But press handlers have been far more sparing in making him available for questions from the full press corps.

By Mr. Knoller’s count, Mr. Obama has held six “formal, full-scale” White House news conferences, four of which took place in the East Room and were held during prime-time hours. But factoring in all of Mr. Obama’s press availabilities brings the number to 49, according to Mr. Knoller.

Though Mr. Obama has fielded questions during joint appearances with foreign leaders - including French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and most recently Mexican President Felipe Calderon - those events have involved either one or two questions for each country’s press corps. And in the case of Mr. Calderon, several press outlets noted that Mr. Obama gave the question from the American side to the Spanish-language Univision network - a move some reporters speculated was designed to make sure the president didn’t have to field questions about BP or other non-immigration queries.

Last week, Mr. Obama drew the ire of reporters when he refused to take questions during a signing ceremony for the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act. CBS reporter Chip Reid, one of a small group of reporters in the room, asked Mr. Obama if he could answer some questions on BP, to which the president responded he was “certainly free to ask them.”

“We won’t be answering - I’m not doing a press conference today,” Mr. Obama told Mr. Reid. “But we’ll be seeing you guys during the course of this week, OK?”

The next day, after Mr. Obama only took one question from an American reporter at his joint appearance with Mr. Calderon, Mr. Reid gave it another shot, shouting out a question about the previous day’s primary elections. Mr. Obama did not answer.

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