Some members of the press are raising questions about President Obama’s lack of formal, prime-time press conferences. Indeed, he has gone longer between such conferences than did President Bush before him. Most people probably will find this hard to believe, because President Obama seemingly has been all over the television screen since his inauguration. Most of his appearances, however, are through scripted speeches, “town halls,” one-on-one interviews, or other forms of media exposure that do not involve fielding live questions from skeptical reporters.
It’s odd that President Obama seems to be dodging formal press conferences. He obviously is an intelligent person, and his answers to questions typically are well-formulated. Of course, the danger of a press conference is that an unscripted answer might gin up a media firestorm that distracts the President until it dies down. Something like that happened at the President’s last formal press conference, when he said Cambridge police “acted stupidly” in their interaction with Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The resulting controversy was not put to bed until after President Obama hosted an awkward “Beer Summit” at the White House. It may be that that experience caused the President to conclude that formal prime-time press conferences just aren’t worth it.
As a former journalist, I think such press conferences are worth it. I think it is good for the President to break out of controlled environments and meetings with nodding, sycophantic followers and face some tough and even oddball questions from the media. Presidents who are skillful in handling questions from the media — like President Kennedy — look sharp and at ease; their ability to deal with aggressive, probing questions with intelligence and humor inspire public confidence. Press conferences undoubtedly keep the President more on top of issues that are of current interest to the country, even if they aren’t particularly of interest to the President or his advisors. They also show that the President is not some remote, all-controlling figure, but a human being, elected to an important office, who is answerable to the public. If Presidents duck the press, they end up being depicted as out of touch — and maybe they are.