One of the little-remarked aspects of Barack Obama’s first prime-time presidential presser involves the process of selecting the questioners. I hadn’t noticed it, but in the past two days have been asked about whether Obama had preselected reporters rather than allow the White House press corps the customary process of vying for his attention. The Wall Street Journal’s editors criticized Obama yesterday for his checklist:
About half-way through President Obama’s press conference Monday night, he had an unscripted question of his own. “All, Chuck Todd,” the President said, referring to NBC’s White House correspondent. “Where’s Chuck?” He had the same strange question about Fox News’s Major Garrett: “Where’s Major?”
The problem wasn’t the lighting in the East Room. The President was running down a list of reporters preselected to ask questions. The White House had decided in advance who would be allowed to question the President and who was left out.
Obama seems to have made a decision that the first prime-time appearance was too critical to allow it to go unscripted. That was doubly true with Porkulus on the line. He needed to control the message as much as possible, perhaps more concerned about perception of his performance than the substance of the answers. I’d chalk this up to insecurity more than anything else.
The WSJ opines that George Bush couldn’t have gotten away with this, but that yardstick will get old shortly. Presidents usually get cut some slack in the first couple of press conferences, just out of courtesy. I agree that Bush would have gotten immense criticism for this in 2002 forward, but I don’t think it would have been more than a gripe from White House gaggle in 2001, little noticed outside of that particular clique. Obama got a lot of criticism from the black press for skipping them despite their front-row seating, too, so he didn’t exactly get a pass this week.
That doesn’t make it invalid, but criticism should come from the actual damage this does, and not so much in relation to media behavior in the previous administration. So what damage does this do? It makes it look as though Obama’s playing favorites in the media, and certainly his question to Sam Stein of the Huffington Post looked like a deliberate statement. Other than that and a lack of clear ways for reporters to gain access to the President, though, it’s probably a wash. Presidents can pick their favorites from the podium, too, and make it less obvious than Obama did on Monday.
Besides, we can expect the national media to give Obama a tongue bath for the next few press conferences, regardless of how he selects the questions. If Obama annoys them with his little list, perhaps that will motivate them to get tougher with the new administration, and that’s not a bad thing, either.
Update: Ari Fleischer confirms that Bush did the same thing, although perhaps in a more subtle way:
Ari kept him from acknowledging the “dot coms and the oddballs,” which means that Jeff Gannon and Talon must have come during Scott McClellan’s tenure. Right? Not quite; he didn’t get to ask a question of Bush until 2005, but he did get some questions in with Fleischer.
Interestingly, it was this question in 2005 which raised all the ruckus about his bias and blew his cover:
“Senate Democratic leaders have painted a very bleak picture of the U.S. economy. (Senate Minority Leader) Harry Reid was talking about soup lines. And (Senator) Hillary Clinton was talking about the economy being on the verge of collapse. Yet in the same breath they say that Social Security is rock solid and there’s no crisis there. How are you going to work – you’ve said you are going to reach out to these people – how are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?”
How much different from that is this?
You have often said that bipartisanship is extraordinarily important overall and in this stimulus package. But now when we ask your advisers about the lack of bipartisanship so far — zero votes in the House, three in the Senate — they say, well, it’s not the number of votes that matters; it’s the number of jobs that will be created.
Is that a sign that you are moving away, your White House is moving away, from this emphasis on bipartisanship? And what went wrong? Did you underestimate how hard it would be to change the way Washington worked?
Chip Reid works for CBS News. Note that Reid (unlike NPR’s Mara Liasson later in the presser) never challenged Obama on his own failure to offer bipartisanship in the process of creating Porkulus. Instead, Reid makes Obama sound like the victim of “Washington” (read: Republicans). Will anyone out Reid as an oddball and a partisan hack? Because I don’t see much daylight between those two questions.