Robert Bennett: Press conferences can help and hurt

Published: Monday, May 6 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

President Barack Obama answering questions during his new conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April 30, 2013. The president brushed aside the suggestion he's lost political clout, saying "rumors of my demise may be a little exaggerated." (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP

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One of the most powerful tools that an incumbent president has is the presidential press conference. If things go well, he can control its direction, use it to solidify support for his positions and dominate the news cycle that follows it.

One of the most dangerous arenas an incumbent president can enter is the presidential press conference. If things go badly, it can humiliate him, as any sign of weakness or indecision on the his part will be pounced on by the White House Press Corps.

Last week, Barack Obama held such a conference, hoping to achieve the first result but coming out with the second.

The Washington Post, which endorsed Obama in both 2008 and 2012, headlined its editorial as, "A policy without coherence." The lead sentence read: "The muddle that is President Obama's policy on Syria has grown still muddier." Its summary sentence read: " ... If Mr. Obama continues to pursue a policy of awaiting U.N. consensus and deferring to Russia, the result will be more crossings of his red line — and grave damage to U.S. interests."

E.J. Dionne Jr., a columnist whose support for Obama has been unwavering, wrote an op-ed piece that carried the headline, "Where's the hope?" and a sub-head that said, "The president should resist appearing worn down." Commenting on the most biting question of the press conference, when Jonathon Karl of ABC News asked the president if he still has "the juice" to get things through Congress, Dionne wrote, "I wish Obama had replied, 'Lighten up. This is the country where hope lives.' " That's a sure indication that he thought the president's actual answer hurt him.

Lots of others piled on. The word most often used across the political spectrum to describe the current direction of the Obama presidency has been "followership." One op-ed that used it added, "Or worse, presidentially-induced confusion" and quoted the president's actual statements on Syria at length, in order to prove the point. Another, noting that strong presidents with recalcitrant Congresses have still been able to take charge, asked, "Hasn't he seen the movie 'Lincoln?' " A third smugly noted that the president's approval rating has dropped 10 points in the four months since his inaugural. From the White House point of view, it has been a bad week.

All of this may well pass — the effects of a single bad performance usually do. Anyone can have an off day. However, the response to this one may indicate something deeper.

President Obama is still a very likable individual, as is his wife. Most Americans greeted his election with — to use Dionne's word — great hope. The fallout from this press conference suggests that that personal view of him notwithstanding, confidence in his ability to discharge the duties of the presidency has been slowly ebbing away, even among his supporters, and that many of them are now willing to admit it.

This is not unusual. Second terms are hard on presidential reputations. Ronald Reagan hit his low point as a result of Iran-Contra, but his standing with voters recovered after Howard Baker took over as chief of staff and helped bring stability and competence back to the White House. George W. Bush was not so fortunate. After his ratings dropped following Hurricane Katrina, they did not come back.

Barack Obama has not suffered any comparable single disaster, and he still has plenty of time in which to regain his previous standing. But last week's response to his press conference performance is a warning that he needs to be more effective and provide crisper leadership if he is to do so.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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