The Big Test on Monday Night

By Dan Froomkin
10:33 AM ET, 02/ 6/2009

The White House announced yesterday that President Obama will hold his first news conference on Monday -- in prime time, no less -- to talk about the need for his economic stimulus package.

This will present a real test for the folks on both sides of the podium. Will the press corps ask substantive questions? And will the president respond with substantive answers?

Unfortunately, press conferences are not an ideal format for delving deeply into complicated issues. Reporters, some of whom preen for the cameras, tend to arrive with intricate pre-written queries, often intended to trap the president in some sort of slip-up rather than to elicit a thoughtful response. And follow-up questions -- granted only at the president's discretion -- tend not to be follow-ups at all, but rather opportunities to ask unrelated questions. There's almost inevitably a disjointed quality as reporters ask their prepared questions rather than pursue an ambiguous or intriguing comment from the president or continue the last guy's line of questioning.

(Reporters would be well to follow some of the advice I gleaned from past White House correspondents for an essay I wrote in 2004: Ask one thing at a time, make it simple and direct, tag-team on the big issues, and don't worry about how smart you look.)

Another reason to worry: Watching Press Secretary Robert Gibbs mostly parry questions in the briefing room -- rather than use the occasion to help reporters genuinely understand what's going on inside the White House -- hasn't been as big a change from the previous regime as many of us expected. (See my post from yesterday on Jon Stewart's delicious riff on this very subject, if you don't believe me.)

And yet, in spite of all that, it's entirely appropriate for our expectations to be high. Obama has set the bar very high for himself when it comes to transparency and accountability. Anyone who has read his books knows he is a deeply reflective person with an extraordinary capacity to explain his thought processes. And the conventional wisdom in Washington is that he hasn't quite made the sale.

In yesterday's post, The Questions Obama Needs to Answer, I wrote about how important it is for him to explain not just what he wants, but why he wants it -- and how he came to the conclusions that he did.

Monday night will also set a lot of precedents when it comes to the relationship between Obama and his press corps. Even if the questions are superficial, or hostile, or too focused on gamesmanship rather than policy, he should answer them directly. If he does answer the questions, we should give him credit. And if he doesn't, we should absolutely note that in our reporting. Sure, that isn't exactly fair: Former president Bush frequently ignored the questions he was asked in favor of hoary talking points, and the press rarely called him on it. But Obama has invited us to hold him to a higher standard, and we should do just that.

So what questions do you think reporters should ask Obama on Monday night? And will he be better off if he actually answers them -- or just sticks to his talking points? Share your thoughts in my White House Watchers discussion group.

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