Obama holds traditional news conference to talk bipartisanship
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
When President Obama dropped by the White House briefing room unannounced Tuesday, it marked a tactical shift: He had not held a full-scale news conference since July, instead bypassing the traditional format in favor of other speaking venues.
He had taken questions at town hall meetings, via YouTube and from network anchors, but here he was hewing to the custom of answering queries from the White House press corps -- and, in the process, answering critics who say he has been ducking scrutiny.
Administration officials insisted that the visit was not a concession to Obama's detractors (or a reaction to recent articles in The Washington Post and New York Times about the lack of presidential news conferences). "Given the White House press corps' obsession with their own press conferences, this was an opportunity to use their own vanity against them and amplify an important message to the American people," a senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
That message was about bipartisanship -- a subject Obama has been raising increasingly over the past few weeks in response to evidence that voters are angry about both parties' lack of cooperation and accomplishments. In a high-profile question-and-answer session two weeks ago, Obama sparred with House Republicans, earning praise for his agility during a gathering that was meant to put the spotlight on the minority party, forcing them to provide alternative solutions rather than simply object to the president's plans.
On Tuesday, Obama held another event designed to continue that narrative, with Republican and Democratic congressional leaders gathered around a table in the White House Cabinet room. But the photo op and the closed discussion was not likely to guarantee news coverage later in the day. The president's sudden arrival in the briefing room, however, made for breaking news on cable television.
Obama appeared at the hour that the regular White House news briefing was scheduled, and reporters noted that he was on time, in contrast to his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, who is usually late. That led to some ribbing -- Obama joked that he was trying to "bring some change that you can believe in" -- before the president turned the conversation to his chosen subject: bipartisanship.
After a prologue on the subject, Obama took about half a dozen questions, as well as some follow-ups, all but one of them on domestic policy.
Administration officials said that although they did not let reporters know in advance, they had been planning for nearly two weeks to make the president available. But they suggested that such appearances would not necessarily become a regular occurrence.
"Show me a White House reporter who thinks they have enough access and I will show you a kid that thinks it has had enough candy," White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said. "We respect the press corps' desire for as many press conferences as possible, but we can't let it drive our strategy."