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Is Obama Avoiding the Press Corps?

At the White House press briefing with Robert Gibbs Monday, the ever-blunt Helen Thomas kicked off a discussion of how long it's been since President Obama has held a White House press conference. Here's how it went:
THOMAS: When is the President going to hold a news conference? Not that you're not adequate.

GIBBS: Well, I appreciate that. (Laughter.) Chip asked this question on Friday --

CHIP REID: Yes, but she'll get an answer. (Laughter.)

GIBBS: Well, she is nicer than you, Chip. (Laughter.)

THOMAS: I mean, he's gone an obscenely long time, not holding one.

GIBBS: I don't see one on the schedule at least in the short term, which is precisely what I said --

THOMAS: Is he avoiding us?


Not avoiding us? Helen thinks the facts suggest otherwise – and she should know, given how long she's been around this place. Maybe saying it's been "obscenely" long overstates it, but it has been a very long time.

The last time the president held a prime-time White House press conference was July 22, 2009. That was his fifth. Even George W. Bush, no great fan of the White House press corps, held 55 White House press conferences over 8 years, for an average of 6.9 per year.

As Gibbs noted, I asked him about the president's long absence from the press conference stage on Friday. His response was that we in the White House press corps have often questioned whether the president is OVER-exposed, suggesting that it's contradictory, or even hypocritical, for us now to ask why we can't see more of him.

And, indeed, the president has given more speeches, comments and statements (398) and more interviews (157) at this point in his term than any other president in modern history. (Those numbers, by the way, come from my colleague Mark Knoller of CBS News, who keeps the most accurate stats on presidential events. Even the White House refers reporters to Mark.)

But all that exposure doesn't mean White House press conferences don't have value. It's still the best way to hold the president's feet to the fire on a wide array of issues before a prime-time audience. (And despite what some in the blogosphere like to claim, the White House has absolutely NO control over what we ask.)

Yes, there are those who will remind the sometimes-obnoxious White House press corps: "Hey, it's not about you!" And I couldn't agree more. It's about getting the president to answer questions when he's not completely in control of the situation.

The president will soon be under the bright lights for his State of the Union address. And that's an important moment. But in these scary times, with Americans deeply worried about everything from jobs to terrorism, from health care reform to Afghanistan, there's also a time and a place for the president to stand under the lights at the White House and give a prime-time audience unvarnished answers to some tough questions.

Chip Reid is CBS News' chief White House correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here.
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