- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Political Theater Column:

The White House on Monday held a super-secret “background briefing call with senior administration officials,” shielding the high-level presidential aides so they could speak frankly about President Obama’s new plan to assist small businesses.

The arrangement led to some startling statements.

“We are making clear to any bank that they will be able to make a loan now, knowing that there will be a buyer, that they can sell any SBA, 504 or 7A security that they have on their books,” one official said. “In the 7A program, the borrower fees are being eliminated - those are the upfront fees that a borrower pays,” said another.

Clearly, those earth-shattering declarations could not be attributed to those who declared them, and the White House made sure at the top of the conference call to lay out the ground rules.

“As a reminder, this is a background briefing call,” said deputy press secretary Jen Psaki, the only official on the record for the call. “Any quotes from this call can be used and attributed to a ‘senior administration official.’ We’ll take questions after [first name used] and [first name used] give a brief introduction and overview of the plan. [First name used], whenever you’re ready,” Miss Psaki said.

Despite a pledge to be more open and transparent than the Bush administration, Team Obama has kept intact the background briefings for reporters, which require participants to respect the anonymity of briefers when using details. Asked why on Monday’s conference call, only Miss Psaki offered an answer.

“The president delivered remarks today on small business, as did [Treasury] Secretary [Timothy F.] Geithner. This is an opportunity to talk through these specifics in the plan that we weren’t able to address, and really to answer your questions and be of service to you, so hopefully it’s helpful to you and everyone else on the call.”

For his part, Mr. Obama refused to take questions when reporters were trotted into the Roosevelt Room in the White House - a visit that lasted exactly one minute and nine seconds. The session consisted only of a statement by the president before press aides cleared the room of reporters, who were exceedingly polite as they left quietly.

“… still just going to be a first step in what is going to be a continuing effort to make sure that people get credit out there. All right? OK, guys,” Mr. Obama said to reporters as he wrapped up his comments.

STAFF: Thank you, guys.

STAFF: Thank you, everyone.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Good to see you.

PRESS: Thank you.

PRESS: Thank you.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Good. Thank you.

PRESS: Thank you, sir.

So, the White House sought to handle any questions that Mr. Obama didn’t get about the $15 billion proposal. But most news organizations don’t like the background policy, and an umbrella group that serves White House reporters has been trying to end the nameless briefings for years.

“The White House Correspondents’ Association protests the use of briefings done on a background basis, without specific names attached to the information,” said the group’s president, Jennifer Loven, a reporter for the Associated Press.

“Details of the president’s policies and decision-making should be given in the open, in part because it helps the public determine its level of confidence in them. We on the association board are working with the Obama administration on this and other access issues as vigorously as we can,” she said.

The Associated Press nearly always presses for an open briefing. “Information means more when we can tell people where it comes from. So it is AP’s policy to always ask first that briefings and interviews be on the record. We often get a yes,” said AP Managing Editor-U.S. News Mike Oreskes.

Longtime White House veteran Mark Knoller of CBS Radio said the Obama administration is a bit stricter than was the Clinton team, but just about the same as the Bush group. What may be a bit different is Mr. Obama’s firm stance.

“He’s not shy about telling reporters ‘no questions today’ when one is shouted at the end of a photo op or other appearance,” Mr. Knoller said. “Usually, new presidents are a little more willing to take shouted questions in the early days. … It depends on Obama’s mood.”

• E-mail Joseph Curl.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide