By: Byron York
Will Barack Obama go an entire year without holding a formal news conference? He’s getting close: The president’s last full-scale session with the press was on July 22, 2009, which was 307 days ago.
When Obama last held a big news conference, there had not yet been terrorist attacks at Fort Hood, Detroit, and Times Square. Scott Brown was an unknown Massachusetts state senator. There was no national health care bill, much less national health care law. Tiger Woods appeared to be a model family man.
A lot can happen in 307 days, which is far longer than George W. Bush or Bill Clinton ever went between news conferences.
In its defense, the White House says Obama answers a lot of questions from reporters, just not in the traditional news-conference setting. In fact, the president does a lot of one-on-one interviews, frequently with sympathetic reporters. But even in terms of brief question-and-answer sessions with the White House press corps, he has still done fewer than Bush or Clinton.
More troubling is that Obama makes no secret of his disdain for the press. Just look at the scene in the Oval Office May 18, when Obama invited a few journalists to watch him sign a new bill — it just happened to be the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act.
“Speaking of press freedom, could you answer a couple of questions on BP?” CBS’s Chip Reid asked Obama after the signing.
“You’re certainly free to ask them, Chip,” Obama said.
“Will you answer them?” Reid continued. “How about a question on Iran?”
“We won’t be answering — I’m not doing a press conference today,” Obama said. “But we’ll be seeing you guys during the course of this week. OK?”
And that was that. In the spirit of the day, Obama conceded that the press had the freedom to ask questions — he just didn’t have to answer them. (By the way, Obama aides edited the exchange with Reid out of the video of the signing posted on the White House Web site.)
When the president hinted he would answer questions “during the course of this week,” he was referring to his meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderon a few days later. After the leaders made joint statements, Obama allowed questions from just two reporters, both from Spanish-language news outlets. Obama took more than 11 minutes to respond to the questions, then said their time was up, leaving reporters frustrated yet again.
While Obama dodges questions, his spokesman stonewalls them. There’s simply no other word to describe the White House handling of Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak’s charge that the Obama administration offered him a job if he would not challenge Sen. Arlen Specter in the state’s recent primary.
Sestak, a former Navy admiral, first mentioned the matter on Feb.18. In the following weeks, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs was asked about it repeatedly. Gibbs didn’t deny the story; he simply said over and over that he didn’t have any information. Finally, on March 16, Gibbs said he had talked to “several people” in the White House and had been told that “whatever conversations have been had are not problematic.”
After Sestak beat Specter, the question arose again. “You never really explained what the conversation was,” ABC’s Jake Tapper said to Gibbs. “Then I don’t have anything to add today,” Gibbs snapped. The spokesman grew noticeably irritated when other reporters tried to follow up. Gibbs had said all he would say.
The situation amazes veterans of previous administrations. “I think it is astonishing that there isn’t carping about this from the press every day,” says former Bush White House press secretary Dana Perino. “Believe me, they would have nailed us to the wall.”
In one sense, the press, or at least some members of the press, have only themselves to blame. Obama treats them with contempt because he knows that when big tests come, they’ve always been on his side. There’s no reason for him to think they won’t be there in the future. “Most of you covered me,” he told the media elite at the 2009 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. “All of you voted for me.”
That’s the attitude coming out of the Oval Office every day. Why does Obama do it? Because he can.
Byron York, The Examiner’s chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blog posts appears on http://www.ExaminerPolitics.com