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The Big Test on Monday Night

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.

By Dan Froomkin  |  February 6, 2009; 10:33 AM ET
Categories:  Press Watch  
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I am sure that the Boy King will have Emanuel out there softening up the lap dog press corps like he has been with his “strategy session” with people like Stephanopoulos (not that you would know about that reading Froomkin).

But if the press corps is really interested in asking some though questions, perhaps they could ask the Boy King Obama why he thinks a massive direct stimulus package (which is really little more than handout to the politically connected including Obama’s longtime buddy Blagojevich) will curtail the recession when it didn’t work for Japan 15 years ago?

And Obama setting the bar high for transparency and ethics? That must explain all the tax cheats he has been hiring.

Posted by: SharpshootingPugilist | February 6, 2009 12:17 PM | Report abuse

"And Obama setting the bar high for transparency and ethics? That must explain all the tax cheats he has been hiring."

The fact that you and everyone else are aware of the tax issues with these nominees is a testament to how high the bar is set.

Obama could have taken the Republican route, I suppose, and shielded his nominees' records behind executive privilege, but he would have been cheating us out of the opportunity to watch you wingnuts work yourselves into a froth over such a mundane "scandal".

Posted by: BigTunaTim | February 6, 2009 12:35 PM | Report abuse

"Will the press corps ask substantive questions? And will the president respond with substantive answers?"

Will pigs fly?

Posted by: wallace2 | February 6, 2009 12:51 PM | Report abuse

"The fact that you and everyone else are aware of the tax issues with these nominees is a testament to how high the bar is set. "


Are you seriously that ignorant? The tax cheats did not volunteer the information, they got caught. The AP, for example, broke the story of Killefer's tax lien placed against his home in Washington, D.C., it had nothing to do with any mythical high bar of excellence in disclosure from the Boy King Obama.

Posted by: SharpshootingPugilist | February 6, 2009 2:10 PM | Report abuse

What's Sharpie's problem? Some part of your anatomy too small?

The Boy King won the election by a wider margin than your boy King George and didn't have to cheat or scare the S*** out of people to do it. Your Boy George was the recipient of the biggest social promotion ever riding on the coattails of his daddy and his Nazi loving grandpa. Do you think that dimwit would have ever gotten into Yale or Harvard on his own? What about the Air National Guard which he didn't even bother to show up for once the shooting in Vietnam ended?

Sharpie I think you need a new hero.

Posted by: troyd2009 | February 6, 2009 3:17 PM | Report abuse

troyd2009, I'm sorry, where did I mention W? I thought we were talking about the newest latest greatest disaster in Washington Politics: Barack Hussein Obama?

Posted by: SharpshootingPugilist | February 6, 2009 3:49 PM | Report abuse

Maybe two or three of the correspondents at that news conference will ask substantive questions. Dan's on target when he says these White House press folks preen for the camera.

And it is not just press bashers that have convinced me of this point of view. Other members of the press corps have been the ones showing just how much much of a waste of space the Brian Williamses, Joe Scarboroughs and Nancy Graces are.

Posted by: crix | February 6, 2009 3:51 PM | Report abuse

I wish Sharpshooting Pugilist would get laid. He sure sounds like he needs it.

Posted by: patterman | February 6, 2009 6:32 PM | Report abuse

The dull shooter and puncher doesn't seem to understand that these guys and the woman (Killeher is more female than, say, Barbara Bush) quit or got out and won't get the positions because the system worked. This isn't like the wave of criminal scum that filled the second Bush administration in spite of their criminal backgrounds, and you never ever hear republicans say a good word for paying taxes.
That said I want to see some action on Solis and I want Howard Dean instead of some scumbag like Cooper. Dean gets it. And Gregg? Out the airlock, please, he's too close to Abrahamoff and if we aren't getting a Dem senator to replace him then its time to pay some money to the people who fix small airplanes for the politically connected and lets see about some Republican planes mysteriously going down for a change.

Posted by: sparkplug1 | February 6, 2009 8:21 PM | Report abuse

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