Monday, February 22, 2010

President Obama, who pledged to establish the most open and transparent administration in history, on Monday surpasses his predecessor’s record for avoiding a full-fledged question-and-answer session with White House reporters in a formal press conference.

President George W. Bush’s longest stretch between prime-time, nationally televised press conferences was 214 days, from April 4 to Nov. 4, 2004. Mr. Obama tops that record on Monday, going 215 days - stretching back to July 22, according to records kept by CBS Radio’s veteran reporter Mark Knoller.

The president has seemingly shunned formal, prime-time sessions since his last disastrous presser, when he said police in Cambridge, Mass., “acted stupidly” by arresting a Harvard professor who broke into a home that turned out to be his own. The off-the-cuff comment took over the news cycle for a week, overshadowing his push for health care reform, and culminated in a White House “Beer Summit,” where the president hosted white police officer James Crowley and the black Harvard professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr.

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“He does seem a little snakebit on the whole presser thing,” said Julie Mason, a longtime White House reporter and board member of the White House Correspondents’ Association.

“At his last big press conference in July, he lost control of the message with his response to the Gates question, and then returns six months later with an unannounced, five-question avail in the briefing room - on a snow day. Was it something we said?”

Earlier this month, the president did field a few questions from reporters in a “mini-presser.” He dropped by the White House briefing room unannounced at midday just after Washington’s second snowstorm, right when the daily briefing by the press secretary was to occur. The “press availability” lasted only 33 minutes and encompassed questions from just five reporters - plus one after Mr. Obama tried to head for the door.

In contrast, a typical White House press conference is usually announced well in advance and takes place in the far more formal White House East Room. The prime-time sessions - carried live by all TV networks - last at least an hour and include questions from 12 to 15 reporters, sometimes more.

“I don’t count that five-question, surprise ‘avail,’ as a presser,” Miss Mason said.

Still, Mr. Obama has held plenty of tightly controlled sessions with reporters. He has given 66 interviews since July 22 - including two that day, according to Mr. Knoller’s records. But that doesn’t satisfy White House veterans.

“The administration will point you to all the interviews he does, but that is all about control. We are naturally at cross-purposes with him, because he wants to come out with his talking points and the press wants to knock him off those talking points - so the result is he just doesn’t come around anymore,” Miss Mason said.

Nevertheless, Mr. Obama tops his predecessor in total output. He has given 43 press conferences of various degrees, six of which were solo White House sessions, Mr. Knoller said. During the same period, Mr. Bush gave 24 press conferences, of which four were formal, solo White House sessions.

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