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Obama’s First Press Conference and Its Message to the Media

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True to his nickname, President Barack Obama provided no drama at Monday night’s prime time news conference in the White House. He gave his opening remarks in favor of the stimulus plan, and then took 13 questions from a list of predetermined reporters.

But while the public was paying attention to what the president was saying concerning the economy, reporters and journalists inside the Beltway were focused on the new world order within the White House press corps.

First, there was a signal of the changing of the guard. Helen Thomas, who has covered every president since John Kennedy, asked the new president if any Middle Eastern country possessed nuclear weapons and whether Pakistan and Afghanistan were havens for “these so-called terrorists.” And while conservative pundits jumped all over that odd phrasing (what, there are no terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan?), there was an interesting window into how President Obama is going to handle reporters at press conferences. As she tried to ask a follow-up question, seen at the end of this clip, the microphone was taken away from her.

Traditionally, reporters at a press conference raise their hands to be called upon. Generally they are allowed a follow-up question. These follow-ups are often tougher questions than the first because they zero in on a point that the person who is holding the press conference may have slipped up on while answering the first question.

But it appears the new president will continue to operate just as he did during the transition, controlling not only who gets to ask a question, but maintaining a grip over limiting the tougher questions by eliminating follow-ups. Obama’s main goal during his press conferences is not to be transparent and answer tough question, it’s to relay a message.

By the way, Thomas thought that the president did a good job in his first press conference and was well prepared. But she said she thought Obama was evasive in some of his answers, especially in the area of foreign affairs.

There were also some fresh faces in the East Room. Sam Stein of the Huffington Post was one of the chosen few to ask a question. That was the first time a blogger had that level of access.

Belinda Luscombe of Time had this to say about Stein’s groundbreaking appearance:

By calling on Stein on such a big stage, Obama is continuing to work the message that this is not a traditional presidency, that he is not averse to working with those outside the establishment. The Huffington Post’s readers are likelier to be younger, leftier and more politically engaged than most of the consumers of the old-school media outlets, so it’s also a way of reaching straight into his base. Stein’s question was whether Obama would consider instituting a Truth and Reconciliation Committee for Republicans — similar to the one established after apartheid in South Africa — as had been suggested earlier that day by Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy. Good question, but not a hard one to deflect.

Ironically, Stein’s bosses debated whether he should go to the conference, since it’s easier to blog in real time when you’re watching an event on TV. “You can put your computer in front of the TV and post much quicker,” Stein says. But it was decided that he should attend, a decision that seemed all the wiser when he got a call from the press office confirming his appearance and letting him know he had a good seat. “I knew then that I’d probably get to ask a question,” he says. (At the daily briefings, which happen at the other end of the White House in the Briefing Room, he isn’t assigned a seat at all.)

In case you didn’t keep score, Time was not called on to ask a question.

And to the surprise to many and the dismay to conservatives, liberal radio host Ed Schultz was front-row center at the press conference. The obvious juxtaposition would be wondering how it would have looked had Rush Limbaugh was offered such a prominent seat at President George Bush’s press conferences. Schultz was not called upon to ask a question, but Obama’s signal was clear to many journalists: He’s a supporter, he’ll help deliver my message, he’ll get a good seat.

Finally, Michael Fletcher of the Washington Post asked the president about Alex Rodriguez’s admission that he had used performance enhancing drugs as a player for the Texas Rangers in 2003. Why Fletcher decided that this was the most important query he could come up with is beyond me. He was only one of 13 reporters in the room granted the opportunity to ask the president a question while the country is still fighting two wars and facing a deep economic crisis. If I were his editor at the Post, I would have pulled my hair out.

If Fletcher, or any other White House reporter for that matter, needs help in crafting questions, here are a few I would ask:

1. Mr. President, you keep referring to “shovel ready projects” to get people to work right away. But usually projects such as bridge repair and construction, home building, road construction and other public works need to go through a myriad of local zoning hearings, engineering studies, environmental studies, historic review boards and other red tape. These hearings and public reviews take anywhere from two to five years to complete before dirt is turned. Does your stimulus package address those issues? Are these layers of red tape and local approvals going to be eliminated in order to get people to work faster?

2. Mr. President, you say that 4 million jobs will be created or saved by the stimulus package. What matrix are you going to use to define a “saved” job? How is anyone to know if their job was targeted to be cut, but was saved by the stimulus package? And is this a way to fudge the numbers to show success?

3. Mr. President, you said in Fort Myers that if your plan does not work, you should be held accountable by the voters four years from now. Does that mean we should expect 1 million jobs to be created each year until 2012?

4. Mr. President, after months of hundreds of thousands of job losses, when exactly should the American public start to see job creations instead of job cuts?

5. Mr. President, during your campaign, you offered to sit down face-to-face with the leading dictators of the world without preconditions during your first year in office. When should the American public expect to see that happen? And as a follow-up, there are media reports from the Caribbean indicating that you are planning to meet with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in April. Can you confirm that?

6. Mr. President, you campaigned on changing the way government works in Washington, yet this stimulus package has followed the same predictable path. House Democrats wanting to spend every dollar they can print, Republicans holding fast to their theories on tax cuts. In the end, only three Republicans on the Hill voted for the package, and even 11 Democrats voted against it in the House. How is this change? And what do you plan to do differently the next time Washington faces a major issue?

7. Mr. President, you have made overtures to Iran to start talks. How do you plan to balance your desire for better relations with that nation with our long time alliance with Israel? Have you discussed your Iranian plans with Israel leaders yet?

8. Mr. President, exactly where do we have $2 trillion to spend? Can you explain to the American public where this money is coming from?

Any one of those questions would be better than finding out the president’s thoughts on A-Rod.

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Written by newscycle

February 12, 2009 at 1:13 am

Posted in Obama, White House

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