Monday, February 22, 2010

Open? Transparent? Hardly

Barack Obama's die–hard supporters continue to insist that his presidency is a departure from the past.

They've always seemed to be especially eager to draw a distinction between the president and his immediate predecessor.

Maybe, when it is over and it is seen in history's rearview mirror, the Obama administration will prove to be the departure they like to say that it is. But, in one sense, at least, it is not an improvement over the presidency of George W. Bush.

As the Washington Times reports, today is the 215th consecutive day since Obama held a formal, televised prime–time press conference. That, the Times observes, is longer than Bush, who was frequently ridiculed for avoiding press conferences, ever went.

As a reminder, Obama's last such press conference came in July. That was the occasion when he said the Cambridge, Mass., police had "acted stupidly" in their handling of a black Harvard professor who broke into his own home. Things sort of spiraled out of control for Obama on that occasion. In fact, when the story of this administration is written, that may well be remembered as the moment when Obama's health care reform campaign really began to unravel.

To be fair, the Times concedes that Obama has given many interviews to reporters. But those are controlled situations and they are seldom televised live or shown in their entirety on tape. Usually, such interviews get whittled down to a few sound bites that may or may not be an accurate portrayal of the essence of the interview.

Fact is, such sound bites are usually chosen because they fit the amount of time that is available or they best serve whatever the news organization's agenda may be — or because they are controversial (i.e., "I am not a crook" or "I did not have sexual relations with that woman"). That does not necessarily mean they are chosen because they address what voters want to hear.

A prime–time presidential press conference, on the other hand, tends to be a freewheeling, unscripted — at times, uncontrolled — affair, in which a dozen or more reporters, representing a variety of news organizations, are allowed to participate. Viewers can see the whole thing as it happens and, if the president is not asked about something viewers want to hear about, they know it wasn't his fault. He was there, and the reporters had the opportunity to ask him. For whatever reason(s), they did not.

But if the president conducts interviews in a private setting and citizens hear no references to a subject they want to hear about when the sound bites are released, what are they to believe — the president's account or the reporter's?

I suppose, if they have sufficient time available, they can go over the transcript of the interview. But how many citizens will use their spare time to do that? It's the kind of thing they depend upon reporters to do.

I am reminded of Obama's criticism of the press following his "jobs summit" in December.

Obama said he gave several interviews during his trip to Asia in November, but he claimed that no one asked him about the issues, that they asked him about Sarah Palin's book but not the economy.

That was false, as observed. reviewed the transcripts of the interviews and "found several examples to contradict Obama's statement."

Here's a quick reality check: The unemployment rate was 9.7% when Obama held his last televised press conference. It was 10.6% in January. He can give plenty of lip service to job creation, which he has done, or how many jobs have been "saved" by his policies, but reporters and voters want details. You don't get many details from cherry–picked sound bites.

Here's something else to think about. Even if Obama ends his televised press conference drought today, if he permits another 215 days to pass before he holds another one, it will be late September before he faces the White House press corps in prime time again, and there will be only 5½ weeks left before the midterm elections. Will that be frequently enough to reassure an increasingly skittish public? Will it be adequate to reverse his declining approval numbers?

Tell me, would two prime–time presidential press conferences in 14 months be change you can believe in?

A president who does things behind closed doors is not living up to his pledge to be open and transparent, flowery oratory to the contrary.

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