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The Rose Garden: Obama Becomes the Private Communicator

For months, President Barack Obama was like an ATM for the media, dispensing answers to questions with what seemed like just the push of a button.

[IMGCAP(1)]The president was swamping the airwaves, printing presses and the Web with a nonstop fusillade of interviews, news conferences and even town hall meetings. In the latter arena, he would on occasion beg one of the locals with an opposing view to lob a question his way.

Some veterans of the White House press corps were reminded of the final year of Bill Clinton’s presidency, when the increasingly irrelevant chief executive seemed willing to grab onto anyone who would listen.

But Obama in 2009 is deeply relevant, and for a long time was burning up the wires to the press corps and regular folks. And then suddenly, the line went dead.

Obama is still, in his overall stats, ahead of President George W. Bush, who viewed the press as a kind of a species of cactus. But in a White House that regularly touts itself as a beacon of “openness— — and in some ways it has been — Obama in recent months has demonstrated that when he thinks he needs a little opaqueness, he can make it happen.

The president’s last full-dress U.S. press conference was nearly four months ago, a prime-time appearance in the East Room on July 22.

Since landing on five Sunday news programs Sept. 20 — amid a great clamor that he was overexposing himself — the president has infrequently taken questions in public.

Instead, with his health care bill hanging in the balance and in need of careful lobbying, Obama takes most of his questions from lawmakers privately at the White House or on the phone. This, of course, is a far cry from the health care deliberations that candidate Obama promised to air on C-SPAN.

And while delicate discussions are waged in private White House war tribunals, Obama avoids having to take queries that might get him to tip his hand or force him to look obstructive by refusing to answer.

A Senate Democratic leadership aide said Democrats scrambling to pass health legislation don’t mind Obama stepping down from the public soapbox.

“I don’t have any issues with it,— the aide said. “I’m not so sure we’re playing for public opinion right now.— He asserted that the Senate, which plans to begin considering its health reform bill this week, wants the same treatment Obama gave the House — a private push to get the bill over the top.

Towson University professor Martha Kumar, who studies White House interactions with the press and tracks the president’s public appearances, suggested Obama aides have calculated that there is less benefit in having the president wade in while the process of resolving his two biggest issues — health care and Afghan war strategy — continues.

“They like to deal with situations that are resolved,— she said. “No president likes to talk about issues when they are in flux.—

Since the July 22 press conference, Obama has staged only three formal press availabilities, all quite brief. There was an appearance with the presidents of Mexico and Canada on Aug. 10, in which the president took one question from a U.S. journalist. He took four questions at the close of the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh on Sept. 25. And then Friday he appeared briefly with the prime minister of Japan.

He mostly stiffs the small pool of reporters who are escorted into the Oval Office to hear brief remarks. As he finishes up, aides immediately begin besieging reporters with sonorous repetitions of “Thank You!— to herd them out of the room. Kumar says he has taken a question or two at such events only eight times over the past several months.

Obama appears regularly in the Rose Garden to offer a few remarks and then departs with that Reagan-patented look of deafness as questions are shouted.

After a run of town hall meetings over the summer, Obama has done just one in September and one in October.

He continues to hold interviews — his favorite format for taking questions, according to Kumar — but only about a half-dozen since the Sunday show explosion. His most recent was an 18-minute session done last week with ABC’s Jake Tapper.

Obama is likely to hold a series of mini-availabilities during his ongoing trip to Asia, though if Friday’s appearance with the Japanese prime minister is any indication, the sessions don’t look promising.

The president took only one question from a U.S. reporter after entertaining several from a Japanese journalist who asked about U.S.-Japanese relations, including the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

White House officials declined to comment.

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