Reporters War-game Obama Questions

CBS’s Chip Reid jots the gist of his questions on a legal pad. CNN’s Ed Henry writes them word for word on white paper torn from the notebook he’s using, so there’s no danger of cards dropping to the ground. Fox’s Major Garrett has three word-for-word questions and three “concept questions” in reserve.

ABC's Jake Tapper comes with about a dozen questions, including ones he's gathered from colleagues, bosses, his blog and Twitter.

Like athletes limbering up for the big game, White House reporters have been going through elaborate preparatory rituals as they bone up for tonight’s prime-time news conference with President Obama, the second formal “presser” of his presidency.

The Bush White House liked to spring its news conferences with as little as a few hours’ notice, on the theory that reporters would have less time to dream up stumpers and zingers. But Obama aides confidently announced tonight’s 8 ET session six days in advance.

There are 160 chairs, and somewhere between 12 and 20 correspondents are likely to get questions.

The unspoken contest playing out under the East Room lights: The president wants to deliver a message – in this case, reassurance on the economy and a plug for his budget – and not get tripped up by issues he considers extraneous, or that might overshadow what he wants to say.

Reporters have the opposite incentive: They want to “make news” by getting the president to say something he hasn’t said before, or wasn’t prepared to say – which, by definition, is not his message.


“The questions must fence off as much of the talking points as possible, essentially conceding them in the question to limit the president’s ability to repeat them,” Garrett said. “So I push him in an explanatory direction. He loves to explain things, and sometimes in the explaining he makes news.

At Obama’s last news conference, six weeks ago, Garrett read the president a quote from Vice President Biden about an Oval Office meeting he had with the president, and then asked: “Can you tell the American people, sir, what you were talking about?”

Obama’s answer was widely seen as a quip at Biden’s expense, and aides said the president later felt badly about the way it was covered. “You know,” the president said, “I don't remember exactly what Joe was referring to. [Laughter.] Not surprisingly.”

The Fox correspondent explained: “My Biden question fit this method. I read Biden's comment in full — no dodging with ‘I'm not familiar with that.’ I then made it clear, so the audience knew, [that] Obama was in the room during the meeting Biden referenced, and asked him to explain to the country what the issue was.”

Peter Baker of The New York Times, known for asking tough questions with an innocent air, said he views news conferences as “accountability moments, to use President Bush’s phrase.”

“A president gets enough softballs,” Baker said. “We should ask the tough and important questions he may otherwise never get asked. …

“One thing we collectively don’t do very well is listen to the answers a president gives our colleagues and really follow up on each other. It’s easy for a president to remember the first, stock answer to a range of questions. But to go deeper, we should try more often to keep pushing on a topic by asking him to elaborate or explain what he’s just said or point out contradictions.”

Last time, NBC’s Chuck Todd asked a question he’d had in his head for a month: “If people get money back into their pockets, do you not want them saving it or paying down debt first before they start spending money into the economy?” Obama did not give a direct answer, which points to the frustration corespondents feel.

“The beauty of these press conferences for the president is that you look like you’re open and taking questions, when really it’s the most controlled setting you have for taking questions,” Todd said. “It’s more controlled than a sit-down interview because one-on-one, you get follow-ups. Here, you can move around and change topics.”

 

Todd said the question family and friends often want answered is how they can take advantage of a particular program they’ve heard the White House talking about. But such questions rarely get direct answers and rarely make news, so rarely get asked.

Michael Fletcher of The Washington Post made news at that press conference by asking: “What is your reaction to Alex Rodriguez's admission that he used steroids as a member of the Texas Rangers?”

“I had the now-infamous A-Rod question at the bottom of a list of five or six questions that I bring to every new conference,” Fletcher recalled.

“My others were far more orthodox: about the lack of bipartisanship in the stimulus votes, the implications there for his ambitious legislative agenda, about whether Afghanistan could end up being his Iraq, and one that I sometimes now think I should have asked about -- the Cuban trade embargo. I also keep an evergreen, about either DC statehood or ‘don't ask, don't tell,’ if all else fails.”

Fletcher said he assembled the elaborate list in consultation with his editor and his colleagues on the beat. “In the end, I just went with my gut, since my turn came toward the end, figuring he had touched on -- if not exhausted -- all of the others,” he said.

(The A-Rod question was one of three that White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had predicted would be asked.)

CBS’s Reid says some type of gut call is almost always at play when you’re under the lights with Barack Obama. During the transition in Chicago, Reid says he was actually standing up when he decided to discard his planned question and instead follow up on something Obama had said earlier. In Washington shortly before the inauguration, Reid was planning a lighter question, but dropped it when all the ones before him were “deadly serious.”

The reporters spend so much time on their wording in part because Obama, like most good politicians, is deft at making a series of pre-planned statements, rather than answering the specific question he’s asked.

“So you have to phrase questions in a way that don’t let him walk away with it, and just expound on the topic,” Reid said. “I am trying to put him in a position where it’s going to look like he’s evading the question if he doesn’t give me a serious answer.”

CNN’s Henry prepares much more elaborately, lavishing the attention on his homework that Tim Russert used to bring to his “Meet the Press” playbook.

Henry made news at the first presser by pulling out a surprise topic: “There's a Pentagon policy that bans media coverage of the flag-draped coffins from coming in to Dover Air Force Base. … Will you overturn that policy so the American people can see the full human cost of war?”

Obama said the matter was under review and then changed the policy – a grand slam for a news conference question.

The president’s answers were notably long at his last press conference. Although reporters have been told to expect crisper ones this time, Henry pointed out that the long ones can be smart strategy.

“He can get his message out by hitting five or six points instead of just one or two,” Henry said. “But also, the longer the answer, the more people kind of forget the question, and it can take the sting off. At that first news conference, there were some answers where I was thinking, ‘What did that guy ask again?’&dquo;

Henry, who covered President George W. Bush’s last two years in office, has found Obama to be less amenable to follow-ups..

“President Obama feels like once you’re got your question, ‘I’ve got the floor now,’ and he’ll kind of go on for a bit,” Henry said. “There’s a push and a pull there. The challenge is to make sure that if there’s an opening, to try and get that follow-up in.

“But it’s difficult in that setting, because it’s such a pressure-packed environment, and you know that others want their turn. There’s a fine line between pressing and being a ball hog.”
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