In a rare appearance at the White House briefing today, President Obama surprised unsuspecting reporters on a slow news day that found most of the federal government closed for business. He delivered brief remarks on his bipartisan meeting with lawmakers before taking questions from the press corps.
The President has been under fire recently for not taking candid, unscripted questions from the press, instead sitting down for long-form network interviews or giving brief statements or prepared remarks on the topic du jour. He's taken questions from Democrats and Republicans at their issues conferences over the last few weeks, has held several town halls where he's taken audience questions on a variety of topics, and has even done a live interview with YouTube viewers. But members of the press who cover the White House each day have begun to feel neglected, and their frustration has been reflected in the daily briefings with Mr. Obama's press secretary, Robert Gibbs. Gibbs has been routinely peppered with inquiries as to why his boss hasn't done a formal news conference in over six months. The response has been tepid, with the administration playing down the significance of traditional question and answer sessions with the media.
So it's seemingly apropos that the President would make his first 2010 press conference a casual affair in the White House briefing room with Gibbs looking on from the wings. It's not the first time the President has made a surprise appearance in the briefing room, but it's certainly unusual and makes for a more laid back atmosphere than the rigid primetime news conferences in the grandiose East Room.
The last official press conference Mr. Obama gave was in July 2009, and reporters have been asking for some one-on-one time with the President ever since. Today they got their wish, as the Commander-in-Chief dutifully called on six members of the press corps from television to print to radio. The President broke tradition by calling on a television reporter first (Fox's Major Garrett), rather than a print writer from the Associated Press which is typical press conference etiquette at the White House.
Nevertheless, reporters appreciated the access to the President, not only for the opportunity to ask the tough questions but also to take some photos. A wave of flashes from personal cameras could be seen from the back of the briefing room and the echo of star struck "oohs" and "ahhs" could be heard off-mic when the President entered the room. Still, members of the press corps weren't shy about letting Mr. Obama know that they had missed his company and felt a little ignored. ABC Radio's Ann Compton thanked Mr. Obama for taking questions, joking that "It's been a while." And on his way out of the briefing room one reporter yearningly shouted, "When do we see you again?" The President turned to exit and chuckled, surely getting the joke.