- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 28, 2009

President Obama has gotten off to a busy start, fielding more questions in formal press conferences in his first months in office than the American people saw from his predecessor.

Mr. Obama will hold his third prime-time news conference from the White House on Wednesday, and he has held several while traveling abroad as well, calling on 59 reporters in total.

That’s well ahead of former President George W. Bush’s record as Mr. Obama concludes his first 100 days in office. By this point in his presidency in 2001, Mr. Bush had taken 39 questions in three news conferences.

Former President Bill Clinton held more press conferences, in part because he was dealing with the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, Texas, and he also held several extensive joint press conferences with foreign leaders in his first few months as president, something Mr. Obama has not done from the White House.

In Mr. Clinton’s first 100 days as president he fielded hundreds of questions during nearly a dozen press conferences.

Mr. Obama is offering himself up for questions far more than Mr. Bush.

“The fact that he’s met with reporters so often is striking,” said Peter J. Kastor, associate professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis. “He’s clearly someone who seems confident speaking to reporters. The Obama administration has clearly decided that works to his benefit and he can use it as a time to shine. This really is different from what other presidents have done.”

During official press availabilities, Mr. Obama has taken questions from 26 journalists in the United States and called on a total of 33 reporters while traveling to Canada, Europe, Mexico and to Trinidad and Tobago for last week’s Summit of the Americas.

He also has fielded several questions in more impromptu settings.

Reporters from the traditional wire services to less traditional new-media outlets such as Huffington Post have been given the chance to query the president. The decision is made by the White House press team, which hands the president a list of reporters on whom to call.

Mr. Obama doesn’t try to hide the fact that questioners are preselected, though he changes it up every once in a while.

“I’ve got a list of a few people I’m going to call on, and then I will intersperse some folks I’m calling on randomly,” he said while on his European trip earlier this month.

Mr. Bush often had a prepared order of questions to take from the press corps, while Mr. Clinton’s exchanges were more freewheeling with reporters, spontaneously calling on members of the press who shouted at him.

Mr. Obama has fielded queries about the economy, his decision to allow federal funding of embrionic stem-cell research and even his views on steroid use among Major League Baseball players.

Mr. Obama broke a record during the presidential transition period from his election Nov. 4 through Jan. 9, holding 15 news conferences and taking 62 questions. That far surpassed what Mr. Bush, Mr. Clinton and former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan did during their transitions.

The White House has bypassed traditional news outlets several times to enable the president to take questions from non-media people, staging five U.S. town halls, two abroad and an on-line forum where the president solicited questions at the Web site WhiteHouse.gov.

Mr. Obama’s first presidential press conference, in February, was held a few hours after his first town-hall meeting in Elkhart, Ind. He will repeat that process Wednesday, offering himself up to ordinary citizens at a town hall in the St. Louis suburbs before taking questions from the professional press corps.

The White House press shop has said Mr. Obama’s popularity works to reporters’ advantage, but there is a risk of too much exposure.

“We are suffering from Obama overdose,” said Jay Baker of Smoke Rise, Ala.

Others feel reassured by the amount of time Mr. Obama spends speaking to the press.

“He’s asking lots of trust from us; [it is] good that he explains and answers questions,” said Harold Johnson of Saco, Maine.

Mr. Kastor, who teaches a course on the presidency, said the White House is playing to Mr. Obama’s strengths as an effective communicator. But he noted it is unusual to see so much of Mr. Obama, considering his party’s dominance in Congress.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt used his bully pulpit often while pitching his New Deal to get around vocal opponents on Capitol Hill. When Mr. Reagan faced a Democratic Congress, he did the same thing.

Mr. Kastor said he finds it fascinating that Mr. Obama has chosen to go public so often when he enjoys a Democratic majority and a Republican opposition is in disarray.

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