Barack Obama isn’t the first president to attempt to bypass traditional news media and become his own news agency, but he may be the most successful at it. The rest of us should be concerned.
Presidents owe it to the public to take tough questions and answer them as thoroughly as they can. Societies dependent on democratic principles cannot function properly when their elected officials are allowed to do end-runs around the checks and balances that have been built into the system.
This White House has not only discovered social media, it has embraced it — some say exploited it — like never before. A photo of the Obamas hugging on Election Day 2012 is the world’s most popular Twitter tweet. Various YouTube images showing the president at his best — all of them produced by the Obama communications machine — are everywhere.
What’s not everywhere is the president answering to the public. The Associated Press is now calling him on it, charging that Obama is limiting press access “in ways that past administrations wouldn’t have dared.”
According to a study of his first term in office, Obama held fewer press conferences than any president since Ronald Reagan. Obama held 79 during his first four-year term, compared to 89 held by George W. Bush, Bill Clinton with 133 and George H.W. Bush with 143. Reagan held just 27 in his first term.
When he has given press access, it is often in controlled settings with friendly reporters. Obama’s administration has developed a reputation for punishing reporters who ask pointed questions and rewarding those who fall into line. Obama has tended to spend far more time in one-on-one interviews than in press conferences, and typically these one-on-ones are with Obama-friendly interviewers.
It’s not just Republicans who have noticed. Mike McCurry, President Bill Clinton’s former press secretary, has charged the president with tactics “I would have never dreamed of in terms of restricting access.”
It is time the press, as well as the public, demanded that the president be more accountable.