Farewell to Jay Carney, who ably served President Barack Obama during his three years as White House press secretary, an exhausting job. Before he leaves the West Wing for the final time, he should perform one more valuable public service: Tell his boss to conduct his own news conferences.
In his first five years in office, Obama held fewer news conferences than any president since Ronald Reagan -- fewer than two a month, on average.
Instead, Obama sent Carney out to take questions each day. Carney did an admirable job conveying the White House’s position on every issue under the sun, except when he didn’t know the position, which was often. Yahoo! News published an interactive feature a year ago called “The Top 9,486 Ways Jay Carney Won’t Answer Your Questions.” No. 1: “I don’t have the answer,” which he said 1,905 times over the course of 444 briefings.
Of course, the White House press secretary shouldn’t be expected to have all the answers -- nor should the president, for that matter. But there are questions a spokesman can duck that a president can’t. And there are answers a president can give that a spokesman can’t.
In parliamentary systems, prime ministers must publicly debate their positions with opponents in legislative chambers. But Americans have no venue -- except for news conferences -- where they can see a president respond to criticisms. By forcing the leader to answer difficult questions, news conferences help the public hold the president accountable. While it’s true that Obama has held many one-on-one sit-down interviews, those are no substitute for regular back-and-forth sessions with all White House reporters, some of whom may be out of favor.
At various points in his presidency, including around the 2010 elections and during the Affordable Care Act debate, the president has blamed his political problems on poor communication. If Americans understood what his administration has been doing, Obama suggested, they would support us. If that’s true, then more news conferences would benefit not only the public, but the president, too.
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