Obama, by contrast, didn’t hold a news conference in China. Instead, he answered questions in Shanghai from students, who were apparently members in good standing of the Communist Youth League (even so, the authorities declined to broadcast the session on state television). Elsewhere in Asia, Obama eschewed the usual format for news conferences with the leaders of Japan and South Korea, instead allowing one reporter from each side to ask a question at each appearance.
Members of the White House press corps traveling with Obama were baffled: Even Bush, the great unilateralist, had been more willing to mix it up with journalists, foreign and domestic, while abroad. After reporters complained to White House press secretary Robert Gibbs about a lack of communication, he issued a 61-word written statement worthy of the Politburo Standing Committee: “President Obama’s visit to China has demonstrated the depth and breadth of the global and other challenges where US-China cooperation is critical,” it began.
Other elements of Obama’s Asian trip — the bow to the Japanese emperor, the handshake with the Burmese prime minister — have earned more attention, but Obama’s reluctance to be challenged in public is more problematic. It sends a message to the world that contradicts his claim to the Chinese students that he is a better leader because he is forced “to hear opinions that I don’t want to hear.”