Washington Sketch: In China, Obama leaves more questions than he takes

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, November 19, 2009

Listening to President Obama and his Chinese counterpart this week, it was hard to tell who was Hu.

One is the leader of a great democracy. The other is the head of a repressive regime. But as the two men faced reporters in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, Obama deferred to the wishes of President Hu Jintao: They would not take questions. In lieu of this rite of freedom, the two leaders exchanged platitudes.

"We reached agreement in many important fields," the communist leader assured everybody.

"Our two governments have continued to move forward in a way that can bring even greater cooperation in the future," the democratic leader reciprocated.

It was, to put it charitably, a low-key way of spreading American values. A decade earlier, in that very same hall, President Bill Clinton criticized China's Tiananmen Square crackdown during a news conference with then-President Jiang Zemin. President George W. Bush, no fan of the media, made Hu squirm at the White House three years ago when he insisted that they take questions from U.S. and Chinese journalists.

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."

Instead of facing questioners in public, Obama invited correspondents from each American television network to come to his hotel for a series of one-on-one interviews of about 10 minutes apiece.

For the president, this was a low-risk alternative. Each reporter had to cover multiple topics, and that, by the White House's design, left little room for probing beyond the superficial. Obama told Fox News's Major Garrett, for example, that the White House is "taking a look" at tax provisions to encourage businesses to hire, but he didn't offer any specifics. He told CBS News's Chip Reid that he is "fine-tuning" his Afghanistan strategy, but he didn't say what it is. He gave CNN's Ed Henry the news that he is "absolutely confident" that health-care legislation will pass, but he didn't say in what form.

Then there were the requisite human-interest questions that the TV morning-show hosts love. NBC News's Chuck Todd asked whether the president had lost weight. "I'm eating fine and I'm sleeping fine," Obama reported. "My hair is getting gray." Henry asked whether Obama would read Sarah Palin's book. "You know, I probably won't," the president answered.

In that sense, Obama's Asian tour continued a pattern he has developed at home. He had five full news conferences at the White House during his first six months in office but has had none since July. That puts him roughly on par with Bush, who had four full White House news conferences in the same time. For Obama, who pledged to bring a new level of transparency to the presidency, that's hardly an impressive record.

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