Tuesday, December 1, 2009

After months of what some critics called overexposure, President Obama has of late avoided questions from the White House press corps at large, closing the Oval Office to traditionally informal question-and-answer sessions with reporters and pulling back from the fast pace of news conferences he established when taking office.

The president, whose job-approval ratings have been on a steady slide, hasn’t held a formal news conference in 19 weeks, since July 22. That one ended badly, when Mr. Obama waded into a racial controversy by saying a white police officer “acted stupidly” when he arrested a black Harvard professor.

“It can’t be a total coincidence that the last time he faced the press corps, we ended with beers in the Rose Garden with Henry Louis Gates and James Crowley, when the focus was supposed to be health care,” said Julie Mason, a White House reporter for the Washington Examiner who also covered the Bush administration for the Houston Chronicle.

“It does seem like they are responding to the overexposure argument and trying to exert more control over his appearances,” she said.

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Veteran White House reporters have been grumbling about the lack of access to the president, who as a candidate vowed an unprecedented level of transparency.

On his recent trip to Asia, Mr. Obama took few questions - and none during a session with Chinese President Hu Jintao that the White House dubbed “joint press statements.”

Mr. Obama has taken to limiting questions during press conferences with foreign leaders to one question each from U.S. reporters and foreign correspondents, as he did last week when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in Washington. He did the same “one-and-one” with the Japanese prime minister and the South Korean president while in Asia.

In a more unusual move, the president has altered the practice of allowing reporters into the Oval Office for what is called a “pool spray” - a few informal questions after a presidential meeting, often with a foreign leader. Mr. Obama’s meeting Monday with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was closed to the press, even photographers, the White House said.

“It’s surprising and quite unusual that President Obama meets with an allied leader like the prime minister of Australia and there’s no photo op at the beginning or end of the session,” said Mark Knoller, a longtime White House reporter for CBS Radio.

Mr. Obama on Tuesday will announce his new policy on the war in Afghanistan at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He won’t be taking questions immediately afterward.

A White House spokesman bristled when asked Monday about the situation.

“I think the last time we got a question about the president answering questions, if I’m not mistaken, it was - wasn’t it couched in the - in the notion that he was overexposed?” press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

“Hard for me to imagine that the president would submit himself to so many questions that the punditocracy would say he was overexposed, but the new thing happens to be that he’s not answering enough questions,” he said.

Still, the spokesman added: “The president enjoys taking your questions and questions from reporters throughout this process. And I am - assume he’ll continue to do so.”

The president did sit down one-on-one with reporters from all TV network and cable news outlets during his recent trip to Asia, including Fox News’ Major Garrett, whom he skipped at his last White House news conference. Mr. Obama has conducted at least 139 press interviews with reporters, Mr. Knoller said.

The pace is on par with his predecessor’s. By Mr. Knoller’s count, Mr. Obama has held five formal news conferences at the White House during his first 10 months in office, not much different from President George W. Bush, who held four over the same period.

Bill Plante, another White House veteran for CBS News, said presidents prefer to duck the press from time to time, at least for a while.

“At the moment, Obama’s silence has more to do with the coming Afghanistan announcement,” he said in an e-mail. “Bush (both of them), Clinton, Reagan - all had periods where they preferred not to answer questions for reasons ranging from the economy to Iran Contra or Monica Lewinsky.”

But the Obama White House is intent on controlling the flow.

“I get the strong impression this president just doesn’t relish the spontaneous question,” Miss Mason said.

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