White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, February 11, 2009 1:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Watch column for washingtonpost.com. He was online Wednesday, Feb. 11 at 1 p.m. ET to answer your questions about the White House and his latest columns.

The transcript follows.

Dan is also moderator of the White House Watchers discussion group and deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.

Click here to read past White House Watch discussions.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to another White House chat! So much to talk about as always -- including Monday's press conference. In my blog today, I look at the bailout, the stimulus and the status of the honeymoon, among other things. I look forward to your questions and comments.


Madison, Wisc.: How have the differences between the two administrations led you to change your approach in covering them?

Dan Froomkin: Great question. And I can't really answer it yet.

On inauguration day, I published an essay called Change about how the new president offered us an occasion for us to rethink our relationship to the presidency. For instance, I wrote, we have a chance to raise the level of discourse.

A major factor, of course, is transparency -- or I should say the promise of transparency. Because like everyone else, I'm waiting to see whether the talk translates into action.

So far, there have been some signal disappointments -- among them, to my mind, Obama's press conference.


Rockville, Md.: Secretary Geithner's financial bailout plan helps banks and bank shareholders, but screws the average taxpayer. This is NOT the change I wanted to see when I voted for President Obama. I still believe President Obama to be a good man, but people like Geithner needs to go.

Dan Froomkin: Apparently, the bailout plan turned into a real tug-of-war between the populists and the technocrats -- or something like that. See the Stephen Labaton and Edmund L. Andrews story in the NYT yesterday. This seems to be to be emerging as a real tension within the White House.

See also my Jan. 29 post, Where's Obama the Populist? -- which was followed hours later by A Spoonful of Populism, and the next day by Labor Day at the White House. Also see my Feb. 6 item on Obama's Economic Brain Trust.


Boynton Beach, Fla.: On consecutive days, President Obama went to communities that voted strongly against him and appeared before audiences that were not handpicked. He was clearly stating he's president of everyone, hardly the sentiment his predecessor gave us. What was the closest President Bush came to such an appearance in his eight years?

Dan Froomkin: I think this was a huge and important departure from Bush's (unprecedented) tactics. Never before had a president avoided the general public like Bush did, in favor of screened audiences. As far as I know, the only time Bush appeared before a potentially critical audience was in February 2006, when he attended the funeral of civil rights icon Coretta Scott King. If you don't remember how that went, read this


Newark, N.J.: Michael Fletcher has been taking a lot of heat online for his A-Rod question at the press conference Monday, but it got me thinking about a broader issue with press conferences generally: Are they even useful? It seems that even when someone asks an important, probing question, as Sam Stein of the Huffington Post did, the speaker is always able to issue a non-answer or simply reject the premise and answer the question he wants to answer instead of the question asked.

Every now and then, there are suggestions that press conferences should be done off-camera. My knee-jerk reaction is to oppose that, but upon reflection, it seems that it might not be the worst idea in the world. I can't remember the last time I learned anything important from a press conference, so might the public benefit more from having a press corp that is able to engage White House officials on a more candid, private basis that will not be subject to the sound bite culture we see today?

Dan Froomkin: I didn't think that was a good choice of question. But you raise a good point. The fact is that press conferences are not as useful as people think -- precisely because presidents have so much control.

The press secretary's press briefings are even less useful, of course -- and those are what some have suggested should be off-camera.


Washington, D.C.: I disagree with part of your assessment of the press conference. You said "I still think it was a missed opportunity for Obama. Rather than engage in a spirited dialogue with members of the press corps, Obama filibustered." I didn't realize that a press conference was a dialog. Do do you feel that the press should be advisers to the president or that the press "represents" the people and can convey their views to the administration? I thought the job of the press was to find information and publish it so that the people can make better informed decisions.

Dan Froomkin: I absolutely believe a press conference should be a dialogue -- even though that rarely happens. I think it would have served Obama and the nation well had that happened on Monday.

Obama is ostensibly dedicated to engaging in a dialogue with the American people on the key issues of the day -- and in this case, the press corps could and should absolutely serve as the people's representatives. Who else can do it?


Washington, D.C.: Wasn't it great seeing Helen back on the front line giving the president Hell? No mercy for the new guy...long-live Helen Thomas!

Dan Froomkin: Wasn't that great? We could use more Helen Thomases.


Washington, D.C.: I used to read your column every day -- I would print it to read at night since I'm at work during the day. With your new format, you've lost me. I encourage you to go back to your previous format.

Dan Froomkin: I'm getting a lot of this. I'll be writing an updated note to readers in the next few days. But in the meantime, please keep two things in mind: 1) This is a work in progress, both for me and for you; and 2) If you really want to print it out, thanks to fabulous opinion producer Mike Corones you now have that option. There's a link at the bottom of each post -- and in the left column -- that lets you print the whole day's worth.


Concord, N.H.: I disagree with you about Obama's press conference. My wife and I were struck by how great it is to have a president who listens to the questions and then answers the questions, with substance. He treats the press and the American people like adults. I liked it.

Dan Froomkin: Look, I didn't mean to be entirely negative. It was indeed a wonderful change to have someone speak so thoughtfully and lucidly. But Obama did do a few things that Bush used to do that annoyed me greatly, chief among them launching into long soliloquies sometimes only tangentially related to the question. I would have much preferred shorter (thoughtful lucid) answers, and more of them.

Instead of a dialogue, it was 13 monologues.


Count me as one who LIKED Michael Fletcher's A-Rod question: I liked the A-Rod question because President Obama's reply shows that the right-wing does NOT hold a monopoly on morality and ethics in this country, although they'd like Americans to think they do.

Dan Froomkin: Noted.


Chattanooga, Tenn.: When I saw Wall Street's reaction yesterday to Geithner's presentation, I told the guy in the stall next to me " Wall Street hates it. Must be pretty good." Today I see that Steve Pearlstein concurs. I think we at least need to extend the benefit of the doubt to the new guys.

washingtonpost.com: Pearlstein: Big Lessons in Finance From a Little Bank You've Never Heard Of

Dan Froomkin: Obama himself had a similar, if a bit less cavalier, response to the Wall Street reaction. He told Terry Moran of ABC News yesterday: "Well, you know, Wall Street, I think, is hoping for an easy out on this thing and there is no easy out."


Milwaukee: Dan,

I'm very surprised by people who are saying that Obama's attempts at bi-partisanship are failing. I remember that when Democrats raised objections to anything during the early part of the Bush administration, they were labeled as "obstructionist." The argument went that the American people gave control of Congress and the White House to Republicans. Therefore, they want the Republican agenda to be adopted. Democrats are standing in the way, and are obstructing the will of the people.

It seems to me that Obama could surely make this argument today against Republicans -- even more convincingly than Bush because he won by a larger margin than Bush ever did. (Bush didn't even win the popular vote in 2000, but Republicans still made the "obstructionist" argument.) Is it just me, or do the critics of Obama's bi-partisanship seem to be missing something?

Dan Froomkin: Look, when Obama himself indicated he was looking for wide bipartisan support for the stimulus plan, he brought this upon himself.

That said, the public seems to have concluded on its own that the Republicans are being the obstructionists, and that Obama is taking the high road. And Obama insists that his efforts will pay off in the long run.


Washington, D.C.: "and in this case, the press corps could and should absolutely serve as the people's representatives. Who else can do it?"

The people should. If they have access to unfiltered information, including from the press, they can do this. If the press feels they are my representative, then they need to make clear to me, their reader, what their policy positions are and what their preferred objectives are. You can not have a dialog without those. That way the people can comment on whether they feel the press is adequately representing them.

Dan Froomkin: Look, I hope the White House is able to harness technology to engage in a true, direct dialogue with the American people. (See my NiemanWatchdog.org essay in November, It's time for a Wiki White House.

And there are clear indications that Obama's growing new-media team intends to do just that, although they appear to be having all sorts of growing pains.

But until that happens, well, there's the press corps, flawed vessel though it may be.


Minneapolis: Hi Dan -- What are your thoughts on a proposed "truth and reconciliation commission" looking into possible misdeeds by the Bush administration? I'll believe it when I see it. In fact, I would be surprised to see anything that directly addresses the crimes of the last eight years. Obama clearly doesn't want to go there.

Dan Froomkin: What's not entirely clear is whether Obama doesn't want to go there, or just doesn't want to appear to want to go there. The downside for him, in terms of political capital and ill will, is considerable. But Congress should definitely do something.


Richmond, Va.: As a Republican, I'd like to thank you for calling out Obama's straw man argument about the Republicans being for "doing nothing." I appreciate you holding him to the same level of scrutiny as Bush.

Dan Froomkin: You're most welcome. I was happy to see The Post story address that issue this morning.


Philadelphia: You (and your colleagues) act like the mainstream media press corp is this wonderful bastion of information and analysis. Remember, many of us don't trust you. It took you Hurricane Katrina to grow a spine and stop cheerleading the Bush Administration's sketchy movies (very few big newspapers took on the Patriot Act or the lack of evidence for going into the Iraq War). Yes, of course you guys should be asking tough questions of this administration -- but it does seem that your toughness depends on who's in power.

Dan Froomkin: I agree we're far from perfect. In fact, I took issue with several of the questions the press corps asked on Monday night. But for now, we're the best you've got.

And keep in mind that the corps may be diversifying considerable in the coming months and years, as news organizations cut and shrink their Washington bureaus (very bad) and non-traditional organizations send their people in (very good.)


Falls Church, Va.: I agree that we live in a "gotcha" sound-bite obsessed world, so I can sort of see the benefit of doing no-video-taped pressers.

However, Jon Stewart would then be up a creek. And I can't have that.

Dan Froomkin: No, that would be intolerable.

Sorry, I have to run a few minutes early today. See you again in two weeks.


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