Monday, February 9, 2009

President Obama shows us how hard it is to hold a press conference

This post isn't necessarily about new transparency policies, but watching Obama's press conference tonight, I was reminded that even the old-fashioned forms of government communications are extremely difficult, so maybe we should cut the administration a little slack as they find their footing.

Have you ever been in an argument with someone and accidentally said something a little different from what you meant, only to lose the entire argument due to that tiny slip-up? Now imagine how hard it is if people are asking you questions about challenging, controversial topics, there are millions of people who are watching who will catch any mistake, and the repercussions of a mistake could change the course of history.

You want that job?

You can point to a thousand little pauses and word choices throughout the press conference to see how challenging this job is. One in particular that I noticed was on the question about A-Rod and steroids. He began to make the joke that hearing about A-Rod was one more piece of bad news in a week that already had a lot of bad news - but then mid-sentence, realized that even as a joke, it wouldn't play well to compare bad news about baseball to the losses and pain that people are feeling as a result of the economy. He changed course in mid-sentence, and in the end, said that the news was bad news on top of a lot of bad major league baseball in recent years.

When he finally got off the stage, and I was trying to sift out the key points in my head, all I could think was how relieved he must be to get out of there. I felt my anxiety levels drop when he finished, and I was just watching!

So what have we learned after watching President Obama's first press conference?
  • Press conferences are not the venue for complexity. It's just too hard to talk about a truly complex issue in real-time, with cameras rolling and millions of people watching. You can't deviate from your notes because the risk of saying something a little off is just too high.
  • The press asks the right questions, but we need a forum to really push on follow-up questions. Obama has the ability to cut off a reporter anytime, and move on to another question if he wants. This is totally fine by me, because I can see that holding a press conference is so damn challenging that he needs to be able to move on when he's done with a subject. But in the bigger picture, we do need a way to push for nuanced answers to hard questions, and to keep pushing until we get a real answer.
  • Commitment to transparency or not, even Obama isn't going to answer yes or no questions on the spot. You know what? I wish he would. One of the best moments in the "Open for Questions" responses,  was when the now-press-secretary Robert Gibbs gave a one-word answer about "don't ask, don't tell."
  • Obama doesn't seem willing to challenge the format, at least for now. Obama could try to make the argument that press conferences are a case of gotcha journalism, and that noone is really looking for answers, they are looking for mistakes. The only way he can have a complex discussion is by first making it ok to make mistakes. Instead, we saw a pretty standard press conference.
  • He comes across as pretty stubborn when he gets worked up. It was great to see Obama admit a mistake on the Tom Daschle front this past week. After all, admitting mistakes is a sign of self-awareness and careful thinking. However, I was a little disappointed that today he was unwilling to admit that getting zero republican votes in the House was due to mistakes on his part. Instead, he blamed Republicans, which isn't going to make them any more likely to become "bipartisan".
  • He did call on the Huffington Post, which is a good sign for engagement with new media journalism

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