Politics

Obama’s bully pulpit goes live at 11

Neil Munro White House Correspondent

President Barack Obama will give a press conference today at 11:00 a.m., giving White House reporters another opportunity to push for details about the spending cuts he would offer Republicans to get a $2.4 trillion boost to the nation’s credit limit.

But there’s little chance that he will face tougher questions than he faced July 11.

Back then, the questions depicted Republicans as the obstacles to a large-scale deal, even though any grand deal would have Republicans agree to sacrifice their core opposition to new taxes in exchange for only modest trims in spending,  clumsy cuts in entitlement programs and the GOP’s validation of Obama’s claim to be an honest broker among squabbling partisans.

The press conferences are stacked in his favor because he has the power to pick the time, location, questioners and topics.

As the official transcript makes clear, the July 11 event started on his terms.

THE PRESIDENT:  Good morning, everybody.  I want to give a quick update on what’s happening with the debt negotiations, provide my perspective, and then I’m going to take a few questions.

Obama rarely faces tough questions in these conferences, largely because he doesn’t face the shouting questions that Hill legislators face every day.

Instead, most White House reporters just take notes as the President goes through a list of questioners already selected by his press officials.

In the July 11 conference, the pre-selected questioners included several sympathetic reporters, such as Sam Stein, a Huffington Post reporter, April Ryan, who works for Urban Radio Networks, and Chip Reid of CBS News, who asked, “Isn’t the problem the people who aren’t in the room, and in particular Republican presidential candidates and Republican Tea Partiers on the Hill?”

Obama also chooses to answer few questions, partly because he prefers to give long answers. Reid’s question took 120 words, Obama’s answer claimed 399 words. Reid’s 12-word follow-up question produced 536 words of answer. Stein’s 80-word question detonated a 819-word answer.

The reporters who are not selected do not yell their questions at the president, partly because they respect the Presidency. (Boehner says ‘no need’ for Camp David summit)

They’re cautious also because they can’t press an uncooperative President to provide a useful, relevant or even coherent answer without seeming rude or belligerent to a national audience. That audience includes the reporters’ own editors, bosses, shareholders and friends.

Obama is skilled at not answering questions he doesn’t like. For example, Reid asked Obama about the unpopularity of his effort to raise the debt-limit by another $2,400 billion. “The latest CBS News poll showed that only 24 percent of Americans said you should raise the debt limit to avoid an economic catastrophe. There are still 69 percent who oppose raising the debt limit.  So isn’t the problem that you and others have failed to convince the American people that we have a crisis here, and how are you going to change that?”

Obama didn’t even try to answer the question. Instead he simply asked himself a question that he liked.

“Well, let me distinguish between professional politicians and the public at large.  The public is not paying close attention to the ins and outs of how a Treasury option goes.  They shouldn’t … [but] if you said to the American people, is it a good idea for the United States not to pay its bills and potentially create another recession that could throw millions of more people out of work, I feel pretty confident I can get a majority on my side on that one.”

Obama also uses humor to deflect good or difficult questions.

Stein asked Obama if negotiations might change Social Security rules to increase the retirement-age or to add means-testing. Obama cut him off, threw out a joke and used the laughter to prevent any follow-up by a reporter, according to the official transcript.

Q. Are there things with respect to Social Security, like raising the retirement age, means testing — are those too big a chunk for —

THE PRESIDENT:  I’m probably not going to get into the details, Sam, right now of negotiations.  I might enjoy negotiating with you, but I don’t know how much juice you’ve got in the Republican caucus.  (Laughter.)  That’s what I figured.

All right, [next question] Lesley Clark.

Aggressive reporters would also make themselves vulnerable to push-back from the President’s staff.

The next day or week, he or she may find that White House officials do not quickly respond to routine inquiries. White House spokesman Jay Carney may ignore them at the daily press conferences. The supply of coveted invites to accompany his or her journalist peers at quiet chats with officials may not appear, while scoops and interview-opportunities are given to non-aggressive rivals. This can cause reporters’ editors to complain.

This pressure is sufficient to silence even the reporters who throw tough questions at White House spokesman Jay Carney. Thus CBS White House reporter Mark Knoller and ABC’s Jake Tapper did not try to interrupt the President as he stepped though his list of picked questioners.

So the president can freely use his podium at the press-conference to pitch his message in a dramatic fashion that likely to get reach a national-audience via the evening news-shows. That’s why its called The Bully Pulpit.