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The Rose Garden: Obama Is Meeting the Press at a Historic Rate

President Barack Obama so far has been one of the most accessible presidents in modern history, holding as many or more press conferences as his predecessors and sitting for scores of interviews with reporters, according to statistics due to be published today on

[IMGCAP(1)]In addition, Obama has staged numerous town hall meetings. While these forums mostly feature friendly questions, the audiences generally are not screened and Obama routinely entertains skeptical inquisitors.

Obama vowed during the campaign to have a transparent administration, and with respect to his personal availability, he has arguably fulfilled the promise.

According to the new data, compiled by White House communications experts and White House Transition Project Director Martha Kumar, Obama has held 22 press conferences as of Aug. 20, including nine solo appearances and 13 held jointly with other heads of state.

By comparison, former President George W. Bush by the end of his first eight months in office had held only three solo press conferences, while the famously loquacious President Bill Clinton had held eight by the Aug. 20 mark.

Obama has conducted 114 interviews in his first seven months — mostly with national print publications, the top TV networks and foreign journalists — dwarfing the 37 interviews by Bush.

Of course, presidents can give any answer to a question they want, and Obama is no slouch when it comes to the time-honored practice of pivoting off a tough question by essentially ignoring it and laying out a torrent of propaganda instead. Even if he has to grapple with difficult queries, Obama is able to use the press as a form of free mass advertising for his message.

But the president has uniquely made the most of the opportunity by intruding as often as possible on the networks’ moneymaking prime-time schedule. Obama has held four East Room evening news conferences so far. No president before him had by this time held more than one.

And the ratings have been staggering. The first such affair, on Feb. 9, raked in 49 million viewers, according to Kumar. And while the Obama Show has been steadily in decline ever since, viewership would seem strong enough that cancellation is unlikely. A March 24 nighttime presser captured 40.4 million. His April 29 and July 22 evening affairs garnered 28.8 million and 24.7 million, respectively.

“News organizations are interested in him,— Kumar said of the president’s ability to carve valuable real estate out of the networks’ prime-time programming. “The economy and health care are critical— to audiences, she noted, and the president is grappling full time with both.

Obama also got himself onto the evening airwaves with a cleverly staged prime-time town hall broadcast by ABC from the East Room. Obama took questions from hosts Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer, as well as “average— people invited to have their concerns addressed. But unlike during his news conferences, when Obama appeared on all the major networks, the president had to face a little competition this time. He grabbed only 4.7 million viewers and badly lost the 10 p.m. time slot to the debut of NBC’s “The Philanthropist— and a repeat of “CSI: NY— on CBS.

Obama has turned out to be a communications slacker in only one department — what’s known around the White House as a “pool spray.— During these brief sessions, a small group of reporters is granted entree to some inner sanctum like the Oval Office at the beginning or conclusion of a private presidential meeting and is allowed to toss a few questions.

Most of those who are called on are wire or TV reporters looking to get a quote from the president on breaking news of the day and then race back to their desks to jam it into a running story.

Obama did only 34 short question-and-answer sessions during his first seven months, compared with 91 such audiences granted by Bush and 176 given by Clinton.

Kumar said Obama’s clear distaste for the pool spray reflects his cerebral style. And without the rigorous preparation done before news conferences, Obama has on occasion seemed off his game.

“He’s not as good at doing these short Q&A’s and getting all of his thoughts out on a subject in a clear way,— Kumar said. “He’s a lawyer and a former academic, and he likes to explain things in a lot of detail — to bring in the ‘buts’ and ‘wherefores.’—

In the full-dress press conferences, Obama has taken fewer questions than most presidents — an average of about 13 compared with some 20 fielded by his predecessors. “I think he’s done well,— she said.

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