Obama finds virtual end-around to bypass the White House press

President Obama is finding ways to get his message to the public without going through the White House press corps.

Obama on Monday held his “first completely virtual interview” as part of an event hosted by Google+, the social network the president called “a newfangled thing.”

The president joined a so-called “hangout”— a chat room of sorts on the social networking site — and took questions through YouTube on everything from unemployment to streamlining the federal government.  

The event took place in the White House’s Roosevelt Room without the presence of television cameras or reporters.

The virtual interview is part of a larger effort by the White House to connect directly to Americans without going through the news media.

In recent months, Obama has hand-picked social media networks like Facebook and Twitter to relay his message on a variety of issues, holding town-hall meetings on both and even doing a third on LinkedIn.

And when Obama has sat down with reporters in recent months, it has been with hand-picked news outlets, which could allow the White House to better tailor the president’s message.

The effort extends beyond the president, too. On the heels of Obama’s State of the Union address last week, Vice President Biden and more than 30 White House officials went directly to the public by answering questions on Twitter.

The White House says Obama faces tough questions regardless of whether they are posed by reporters at a news conference or in an interview or from the public during social media events.

“I know we’re not picking the questions,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday, before quipping: “Would that we could.”

Still, journalists have taken notice. After all, Obama hasn’t held a solo, long-form press conference at the White House since the beginning of October.

“I worry sometimes that the administration subverts the Wild West appeal of new media by rather scrupulously scrubbing and screening questions — like they have done in various new media town-hall settings,” said Julie Mason, a talk show host on Sirius-XM and veteran White House correspondent who also serves on the board of the White House Correspondents’ Association.

To be sure, Obama participated in two sit-down interviews last week — as part of his post-State of the Union swing through five battleground states — with ABC’s Diane Sawyer and Univision’s Maria Elena Salinas. He also did a few television hits with local Telemundo stations.

But he hasn’t fielded a single question in a press conference setting in months.

Some reporters had expected the White House to hold a year-end press conference in December before Obama headed to Hawaii for his holiday vacation. After all, questions loomed on the payroll tax extension debate, the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline and a string of potential recess appointments.

But Obama — who issued a series of in-person statements — left town without answering questions at a press conference.

“I think at the end of the year, he would have done one but it was inconvenient,” said Martha Kumar, a professor of political science at Towson University who works from the White House and regularly tracks presidents’ interactions with reporters. “Presidents are always in the position to pick and choose how they want to convey their message.”

Kumar said she sympathizes with White House reporters, and acknowledged that the press conferences have become “erratic.”

But Kumar’s research indicates that Obama has held more solo White House news conferences — 17 — than his predecessor, George W. Bush, who held 11 in his first three years of office. On the other hand, Obama has held far fewer news conferences than former Presidents Clinton and George H.W. Bush, who held 31 and 56 news conferences, respectively.

Obama has also been less likely to answer impromptu questions at photo-ops and other spur-of-the-moment sessions with reporters. Obama has only held 94 of these fewer short question-and-answer sessions, while predecessors George W. Bush and Clinton respectively held 307 and 493 in their first three years in office.

Obama is out-performing both Bush and Clinton when it comes to interviews, however. In his first three years in office, Obama has sat down for 408 interviews, compared to Bush’s 136 and Clinton’s 166.

“He prefers interviews because he prefers speaking on a particular topic,” Kumar said. “He likes to develop his thinking. He likes to talk at length.”

Katy Culver, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said it’s beneficial for Obama to “take the temperature of different groups of people.”

“We used to live in a world of monologues,” she said. “But that world of monologues is gone now. It’s become of world of dialogues and the president is smart to tap into that. It expands the conversation.”

But, Obama should also regularly field questions from the people who follow his movements most, Culver said.

The social media events should be “in addition to, not instead of,” she said.

At the same time, Kumar pointed out that “things haven’t changed much” when it comes to presidents preferring to go it alone without the press.

“I’m reminded of Eisenhower’s press secretary who once wrote, ‘To hell with slanted reporters, we’ll go directly to the people,’ ” Kumar said.