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November 14, 2012 11:11 PM Why Press Conferences, Anyway?

By Jonathan Bernstein

I wrote about Barack Obama’s press conference over at Plum Line today, and I had a few comments about the challenges of negotiating in public, but that sort of begs the question that a few people have been asking the last couple days: what’s in it for presidents? Why should they hold press conferences in the first place?

Now, of course there’s a case that can be made that it’s Good For the Nation, but leave that aside (there’s also a case that it’s very much Good For the Press, but again put that aside). Should presidents seeking to increase their own influence hold press conferences? Here’s the case for the advantages of holding press conferences, and why there’s not much downside.

* Perhaps most obviously: the press really want press conferences, and it’s best to keep them reasonably happy, all else equal.

* Sometimes the president wants something as public and on the record as possible. Of course, he can just say it in a speech somewhere, but a press conference tends to receive much more notice attention (see above). So for example, Obama today give a forceful defense of Susan Rice; he could have done it another way, but this one was guaranteed to be noticed. Note that generally words coming out of the presidential mouth count for more than words relayed by the press shop or other staff.

* There really isn’t much downside. Any politician capable enough to win the presidency knows how to duck a question, so that’s not a problem.. Yes, gaffes are possible, but as we just saw from the presidential campaign, so what? Most people pay no attention to presidential gaffes; anything truly important, such as a presidential misstatement of policy, can be cleaned up afterwords.

* For presidents who have promised to communicate with the American people — and most have — it’s a form of keeping a promise, which is a large part of representation. Now, a prepared speech can do the same thing, of course. But some presidents seem to perform better in the press conference format; at the very least, it varies what people are seeing.

* It’s a way for presidents to force themselves to fully engage with, and force themselves to take at least somewhat seriously, whatever the press corps thinks are the important issues of the day. That’s probably a fairly good form of discipline for the president, keeping him from getting too far away from what high-information Americans think are the important things going on.

* It’s also a form of discipline for the White House overall. Press conference preparation involves preparing answers on all the likely questions, which means actually deciding what the answers are (including, of course, the possibility of deciding just to duck it). To be sure: the normal press secretary briefings do this as well; presidential press conferences are mainly different because the president is involved. But there’s also an increased pressure to actually have answers, when possible; it’s relatively easy for the press secretary to admit that there’s no answer, but quite a bit harder for the president to do so.

Against that, you’re giving up presidential time (a valuable resource!), and taking on the risks and costs that I dismissed above. I don’t know; FDR, HST, and DDE all did regular press conferences (albeit not televised ones for the most part), and they seemed to have a pretty good handle on the job. I think it’s a helpful and underutilized tool for the White House; I think Obama would be wise to have them once a month or more.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.