Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Why Press Conferences, Anyway?

I wrote about Barack Obama's press conference over at Plum Line today, and I had a few comments about the challenges of negotiating in public, but that sort of begs the question that a few people have been asking the last couple days: what's in it for presidents? Why should they hold press conferences in the first place?

Now, of course there's a case that can be made that it's Good For the Nation, but leave that aside (there's also a case that it's very much Good For the Press, but again put that aside). Should presidents seeking to increase their own influence hold press conferences? Here's the case for the advantages of holding press conferences, and why there's not much downside.

* Perhaps most obviously: the press really want press conferences, and it's best to keep them reasonably happy, all else equal.

* Sometimes the president wants something as public and on the record as possible. Of course, he can just say it in a speech somewhere, but a press conference tends to receive much more notice attention (see above). So for example, Obama today give a forceful defense of Susan Rice; he could have done it another way, but this one was guaranteed to be noticed. Note that generally words coming out of the presidential mouth count for more than words relayed by the press shop or other staff.

* There really isn't much downside. Any politician capable enough to win the presidency knows how to duck a question, so that's not a problem.. Yes, gaffes are possible, but as we just saw from the presidential campaign, so what? Most people pay no attention to presidential gaffes; anything truly important, such as a presidential misstatement of policy, can be cleaned up afterwords.

* For presidents who have promised to communicate with the American people -- and most have -- it's a form of keeping a promise, which is a large part of representation. Now, a prepared speech can do the same thing, of course. But some presidents seem to perform better in the press conference format; at the very least, it varies what people are seeing.

* It's a way for presidents to force themselves to fully engage with, and force themselves to take at least somewhat seriously, whatever the press corps thinks are the important issues of the day. That's probably a fairly good form of discipline for the president, keeping him from getting too far away from what high-information Americans think are the important things going on.

* It's also a form of discipline for the White House overall. Press conference preparation involves preparing answers on all the likely questions, which means actually deciding what the answers are (including, of course, the possibility of deciding just to duck it). To be sure: the normal press secretary briefings do this as well; presidential press conferences are mainly different because the president is involved. But there's also an increased pressure to actually have answers, when possible; it's relatively easy for the press secretary to admit that there's no answer, but quite a bit harder for the president to do so.

Against that, you're giving up presidential time (a valuable resource!), and taking on the risks and costs that I dismissed above. I don't know; FDR, HST, and DDE all did regular press conferences (albeit not televised ones for the most part), and they seemed to have a pretty good handle on the job. I think it's a helpful and underutilized tool for the White House; I think Obama would be wise to have them once a month or more.


  1. Disagree on there being no downside. It was at a healthcare press conference that Obama was asked about Skip freaking Gates getting arrested. The result of that was weeks of stupid chatter, Glenn Beck and co. calling him a racist, and that stupid Beer Summit.

    1. what?

      Unless you think that otherwise Beck wouldn't have found some excuse for slurring Obama. And even then: so what?

    2. Ha! I was thinking of this very incident before I clicked on the comments. The question was asked by Chicago Sun-Times reporter Lynn Sweet, and caused me to cancel my subscription to the rag. Silly question, caused waaay too much kerfluffle (which the press was all too eager to gin up), and derailed the health care debate for what seemed like weeks.

      Don't get obsessed with Beck here, this was the Washington Village media complex doing what they do best (worst), and this was the moment Sweet made her bones. Huzzah for her.

      While I wouldn't want to end the practice, I can at least see why Obama may have been put off by the dog & pony show we get today. I'm guessing Chalmers Roberts wasn't thinking that a too-clever-by-half question to Eisenhower might get him a lucrative mention in Walter Winchell's column.

      And they didn't cover themselves in glory today, with questions like 'So have you called Romney in for that meeting yet?', and Chuck Todd pushing for a new job as Presidential Press Conference Editor. At least none of them stooped to Luke Russert levels of clueless. (Now that Junior Russert's on the record as being concerned with ageism among the Democratic House Caucus, someone please ask Luke for his views on nepotism in media.)

  2. I think for Obama there is one other reason to hold regular press conferences: familiarity may help him with the weirdo xenophobia emanating mostly from the Right.

    Pass judgment however you wish, regardless, there's a large part of America not comfortable with the idea that a black guy having a Muslim name is the Supreme Leader. Repeated viewings of Obama answering mundane questions in totally conventional settings probably doesn't hurt in making him seem more "normal" to skeptics.

  3. I’m with those who interpret this more as an attempt to sound reasonable than as any real hint of willingness to compromise on the tax rates.

    Exactly the impression I got. His Susan Rice remarks were pure 'bring it on,' but on taxes he wants to paint the GOP into a corner, which means sounding like Mr. Willing To Compromise.


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